This week, we take a break from the early Christians I’ve been discussing in the past few posts in this series, and look at the reaction of the Roman government to the new religion. For the most part, it appears not to have been very good. Since Romans refused to participate in the imperial cult or worship the Roman gods, they were viewed with suspicion. The Romans tended to tolerate Judaism, at least up until the time when the Jews openly rebelled against their imperial rulers, but Christianity was new, and most of its adherents were poor. The first known persecution of Christians was under Nero, or at least that’s what the historian Tacitus indicated.
Born Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, the ruler’s full imperial name was Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus. While Nero might have been at least somewhat popular during his lifetime, he’s gone down in history as a total ass. He ordered the assassination of his own mother and stepbrother, and was considered to be more interested in theatrical performance than actual ruling. The saying has it that he “fiddled while Rome burned,” but the violin didn’t actually exist in Rome at the time, and the idea that he was playing a lyre in front of burning buildings is generally considered apocryphal.
According to Tacitus, he was in Antioch when the Great Fire of Rome occurred in 64. The Emperor promptly funded relief efforts, but couldn’t shake the popular opinion that he was somehow responsible for the fire in the first place. In order to draw blame away from himself, he blamed it on the already unpopular Christians, and began having them tortured and executed in a variety of extravagant ways.
Legend has it that both Peter and Paul were executed during the Neronian persecution, although not necessarily by Nero himself. According to Tacitus’ account, this actually backfired in a way, as Romans came to sympathize with the victims of this persecution. So who actually started the fire? We still don’t know. Some Christians admitted to the crime, but they might well have been tortured into it. There have been plenty of historical occasions of Christians burning things, but I don’t know that they started that early. Personally, I have to suspect it was the fault of a cow kicking over a lantern. Anyway, Nero committed suicide just a few years later, but there was apparently an idea that he would someday return to life. At least, that’s what one of my college professors said. Some passages in the book of Revelation might refer to this, like the bit in Revelation 13:3 about one of the heads of the beast from the sea having recovered from a mortal wound.
The number of the beast is also thought to represent Nero, as the numerical values of the letters in the Hebrew rendering of his name add up to 666.
Church tradition has it that Christians were also heavily persecuted during the reign of Domitian, who ruled from 81 through 96, and enforced the imperial cult much more heavily than many of his predecessors.
He is said to have had it in for Jews as well, and would have lumped Christians in with their parent religion. It seems that there isn’t much actual evidence for this, however. Jews living in the Roman Empire had to pay a special tax, but I don’t believe Domitian initiated it. There is a tradition that Revelation was actually written towards the end of this Emperor’s reign, but this hasn’t been confirmed, and the heavily symbolic language of the book itself makes it not entirely clear how many emperors there would have been at the time. Readers at the time probably would have known what John meant, but the context has now long since passed, and the interpreters who want Revelation to be something that still happens in some uncertain future aren’t helping matters.
Why would John have thought events that would happen 2000 years later would have comforted the believers of his own time? Then again, this would presumably have been around the same time that the Gospel of Matthew first suggested that Jesus’ birth fulfilled a prophecy that Isaiah made to King Ahaz about defeating the Assyrians. I guess the fun part of prophecies is that, if they don’t come true in their most obvious form, you can always claim they were actually referring to something else.
Later attitude toward Christians varied depending on the particular emperors. It never seems to have been very popular, but some modern historians doubt the common picture of Christians being fed to lions on a regular basis.
Eventually, Christianity would change from the religion of a disparaged minority to the most important one in the empire, but that’s a story for another day.