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Nero and the Christians

During and after the revolt of Boudicca, Nero continued with his own extravagance in Rome and surrounding cities. Eventually performing on stage as both singer and actor, he indulged his artistic personality while earning the scorn and disrespect of elite society. In AD 60 he adopted an Olympic style series of events (performance based) known as the Neronia in which he actually encourage societal elite to participate. His eccentricities, coupled with a growing paranoia (resulting in treason trials, accusations, executions, etc.) continued to push his spiraling popularity to new lows.

In 62, his failed relationship with Octavia finally came to a head. He divorced her on grounds of sterility though the masses supported her violently, and had her exiled to the island of Pandateria where she was quickly killed off to put an end to the protest. Nero immediately married his already pregnant mistress, Poppaea who soon bore him a daughter, and she began to assert even more influence on her malleable husband. With the death of the Praetorian Prefect and replacement by Tigellinus in the same year, Nero's stabilizing advisor Seneca was soon pushed out of the inner circle and Nero's behavior would continue to decline.

By AD 64 a great fire befell Rome and Nero played a prominent role in its controversial beginnings and now infamous results. According to Tacitus:

". whether accidental or treacherously contrived by the emperor, is uncertain, as authors have given both accounts, worse, however, and more dreadful than any which have ever happened to this city by the violence of fire. It had its beginning in that part of the circus which adjoins the Palatine and Caelian hills, where, amid the shops containing inflammable wares, the conflagration both broke out and instantly became so fierce and so rapid from the wind that it seized in its grasp the entire length of the circus. For here there were no houses fenced in by solid masonry, or temples surrounded by walls, or any other obstacle to interpose delay. The blaze in its fury ran first through the level portions of the city, then rising to the hills, while it again devastated every place below them, it outstripped all preventive measures; so rapid was the mischief and so completely at its mercy the city, with those narrow winding passages and irregular streets, which characterized old Rome.."

Some suggested, as inferred by Tacitus (but not explicitly accused) that Nero himself started the fire for a variety of reasons. One was to make room for his planned Domus Aurea (Golden Palace) while another was that the extravagant emperor simply wanted a fiery backdrop in which to recite poetry while accompanied by a lyre. While both, considering the greatness of the devastation, are most probably false, at the time Nero was becoming enemy number one. Despite the fact that Nero did much to restore the city and bring in relief and supplies for the people, the residents couldn't help but believe that the entire tragedy occurred at his orders. Nero needed scapegoats, and he found them in the little known but generally reviled and subversive cult of Christians. These early Christians were believed to be practicing human sacrifice and cannibalism (the eucharist), wild orgies and any number of disreputable behaviors. Mostly Jews or Greek speaking foreigners who not only rejected the pagan gods, but the Imperial cult as well, they quickly became an easy and hated target for the crime.

Again, according to Tacitus in a now infamous description of early Christianity:

"Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their center and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the 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, when daylight had expired.

Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the circus, while he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer or stood aloft on a car. Hence, even for criminals 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."

So even in Nero's attempts to pass the blame on a group that was originally despised, he soon found that his excessive punishments earned the Christians some sympathy and Nero's popularity fared no better. By the following year, construction of his ridiculously opulent Golden Palace, reconstruction of the city center far more magnificently than it had been, and the resulting economic crisis did little to help. One particular feature of the domus aurea carries a legacy forward to the modern day. The Colossus Neronis, a giant 120 ft. (37 m) bronze statue of Nero overlooked the city and would eventually lend its name to the Colosseum, which Vespasian would build nearby to try to erase Nero's memory. At any rate, the economic crisis was severe (the weight of gold coins reduced by as much as 4% and the silver content of the denarius was reduced by 10%).

Despite economic conditions, Nero's excesses continued and a trip to Greece to perform in Olympic Games and sing before crowds took precedence to him. Plots and conspiracies grew (especially that of C. Calpurnius Piso), but yet Nero managed to hold out. Treason trials were commonplace, and unrest began to develop among the provinces (and the legions stationed there). Poppaea's death in AD 65, as well as their infant daughter 2 years earlier, left Nero without an heir. Despite another marriage, there would not be another heir and the Julio-Claudian line was beginning to reach the end.

Did you know?

There are modern scholars, such as Gerhard Baudy, who believe that Christians actually were responsible for Rome's great fire. According to Baudy, Christians setting or spreading the fire represented an attempt to fulfill particular Christian prophecies.


Nero and the Christians - Related Topic: Roman Emperors


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