Abstract of a recently published article by Princeton University Professor of Classics, Brent D. Shaw:
|A conventional certainty is that the first state-driven persecution of Christians happened in the reign of Nero and that it involved the deaths of Peter and Paul, and the mass execution of Christians in the aftermath of the great fire of July 64 C.E. The argument here contests all of these facts, especially the general execution personally ordered by Nero. The only source for this event is a brief passage in the historian Tacitus. Although the passage is probably genuine Tacitus, it reflects ideas and connections prevalent at the time the historian was writing and not the realities of the 60s.
Brent D. Shaw (2015). The Myth of the Neronian Persecution. Journal of Roman Studies, 105, pp 73-100 doi:10.1017/S0075435815000982
I will attempt to outline some of the points I found of particular interest in his article.
Shaw argues that the famous story of Nero burning and in other ways torturing Christians as punishment for the Great Fire of Rome in 64 C.E. never happened. (As usual, bolded font and formatting are my own.)
Nero’s spectacular executions of large numbers of Christians in the aftermath of the fire that raged through the city of Rome in July of 64 is commonly regarded as a foundational event in the history of Christian martyrdom. They were the first executions of Christians performed at the behest of the Roman state. In almost every history of the early Christian Church, the event is marked as a dramatic turning point in the relations between Christians and the imperial government.
Given the surprisingly widespread acceptance of the great significance of this axial event in Christian history, the thinness of the evidence on all aspects of it is quite striking. The paucity and weakness of the data, however, have not prevented acceptance of the historicity of this ‘first persecution’ as an undisputed fact. Indeed, the degree of certainty in the Neronian persecution stands in almost inverse proportion to the quality and quantity of the data. Those who have expressed even modest scepticism about the historicity of the one explicit passage in the historian Tacitus that attests to the executions have been voces clamantium in deserto.
The simple argument of this essay, deliberately framed as a provocative hypothesis, is that this event never happened and that there are compelling reasons to doubt that it should have any place either in the history of Christian martyrdom or in the history of the early Church.
To begin with, there is no evidence that Christians were crucified as a penalty for their faith. The key reference here is Barnes, T. D. 2010: Early Christian Hagiography and Roman History, Tübingen. So much for the late legend of Peter being crucified, let alone crucified upside down. The late tales of the martyrdoms of Peter and Paul appear to have been expressions of what second century Christians wanted to believe. In the Gospel of John there was a prophecy that Peter would meet an undesirable fate and it seemed appropriate that he should die by crucifixion as had Jesus. For all we know from the available evidence Peter died in the 50s, in Jerusalem, peacefully in his sleep. Paul, according to Acts, was in trouble not for being a Christian but for being a disturber of the peace.
I will gloss over the details of Shaw’s arguments for the above and move on to the account by the Roman historian Tacitus of Nero’s persecution of the Christians in the wake of the Great Fire of Rome in 64 C.E. Here is Shaw’s translation of the passage, beginning at the beginning:
A disaster followed. Whether it happened by chance or by a malicious act of the emperor is uncertain. Some authors offer the one version, some the other. There now began a more destructive and savage fire than Rome had ever experienced … At the time a rumour had been running about that while the city was burning Nero had mounted his household stage and, in likening the present evils to disasters experienced in distant antiquity, he had sung about the destruction of Troy … Of Rome’s fourteen districts only four remained untouched. Three were burned to the ground. The few remnants of houses in the other seven were reduced to stripped and half-burned ruins. Just to count the grand houses, the apartment blocks, and the temples that had been destroyed would be very difficult.
That’s the start. At this point Tacitus introduces the episode about the Christians. Did the following really happen? Shaw, a classicist, demonstrates a critical approach that is all too seldom encountered among ancient historians and theologians who refuse to “face the questionable quality of their primary sources”.
There is every good reason for historians to have grave doubts about the story of an attack on Christians by Nero that emerged decades after the fire itself.They should be sceptical to the point of dismissing the commonly accepted idea of Nero as a persecutor, indeed the first great persecutor of Christians, specifically in connection with the conflagration that raged through Rome in July of 64.
What seems to make the idea so compelling and impossible to dismiss is that it is based on a high quality historical source of apparently unimpeachable fidelity, the Annales of the historian Tacitus. The historian’s qualities of veracity and accuracy, within the tolerable limits of the sources available to him, are not generally open to serious question.
Shaw notes that from time to time detailed arguments do appear to claim the following passage is a later interpolation in whole or in part. He cites Richard Carrier’s 2014 article, ‘The prospect of a Christian interpolation in Tacitus, Annals 15.44’, in Vigiliae Christianae 68, 264–83 as a recent example and source for many of the earlier studies. Shaw, on the other hand, chooses to “provisionally accept” the genuineness of the passage.
However, Shaw stresses the importance of recognising the passage is “the only source for the involvement of Christians with the fire and their persecution in its aftermath.”
These were the measures devised by human planning [i.e. Nero’s new building code changes after the fire]. Next sacrifices were made to the gods and the books of the Sybil were consulted, according to which supplications were made to Vulcan, Ceres, and Proserpina. And Juno was propitiated by Roman matrons, first on the Capitol and then at the nearby seashore from which water was drawn and sprinkled on the temple and the image of the goddess. And then the women who had husbands celebrated ritual banquets and nightly vigils.
Not by any human resources, not by the benefactions of the emperor, and not by any placating of the gods did the sinister rumour fade by which it was believed that the fire had been ordered.
To get rid of the rumour, Nero found and provided the defendants, and he afflicted with the most refined punishments those persons whom, hated for their shameful acts, the common people were accustomed to call Chrestiani. The originator of this name, Christus [Chrestus?], suffered (capital) punishment in the reign of Tiberius through the agency of the procurator Pontius Pilatus.
At the time, the lethal superstitio was repressed, but it burst out again not only throughout Judaea, the origin of this evil (sickness), but through the City (of Rome) to which everything that is savage and shameful flows from all directions and is actually celebrated.
At first (only) those persons who confessed were arrested, but then because they were pointed out (denounced) by those (i.e. who had already confessed) a very large number were convicted, less on the charge of having set the fire than because of their hatred of humankind.
And to those who were dying mockeries were added. Covered with the hides of wild animals they perished by being torn to pieces by dogs or, fixed to stakes (or, crosses) they were set afire in the darkening evening as a form of night lighting. Nero had reserved his own gardens for the spectacle. He also presented a circus entertainment and in the dress of a charioteer he either mixed with the crowd or stood in his own chariot.
Even if it was for guilty persons who deserved to suffer extreme and exemplary public punishments, there arose a feeling of pity because it was not for the public good but to satisfy one man’s savagery that they were being liquidated.
If Tacitus is the only source that connects Christians, their persecution, and the fire, we might usefully ask: what do other sources say about this same matter?
What other sources say
Cassius Dio (ca 155-235 C.E.) writes eloquently about the Great Fire but whispers not a word about Christians in connection with it. Maybe this was because he loathed Christians too much to mention them at all anywhere in his work.
Later sources such as the writing of Sulpicius Severus are useless for our enquiry because they all depend on Tacitus.
So we return to Tacitus’s contemporary, Suetonius, who wrote:
… Christians were afflicted with punishments, a type of men of a new and evil superstitio …
Suetonius makes no connection here with the Fire. Indeed, the statement is part of a longer list of legal restrictions introduced by Nero. The phrase “a type of men of a new and evil superstitio“, in Shaw’s assessment, reads very much like Suetonius’s own commentary drawing upon what was known of Christians in his day, in the early second century. Another contemporary, Pliny, shared the same negative view of Christians.
Shaw’s points here are significant. It is very unlikely that in 50s and 50s C.E. Christians were known by the label “Christian”. And the way Suetonius adds a description of these Christians that was shared by his second century contemporaries it appears as if the historian is introducing the term Christian to enable his readers to link a religion they knew about in their day with an earlier group who were previously unknown by that name.
And given that the penalties imposed upon these “Christians” in the days of Nero were associated with a mishmash of other legal restrictions and not with the Fire, we can accept that Suetonius knew nothing of Christians being singled out for dire punishment because of the Fire. Rather, the punishments Suetonius speaks of may well have been one of the occasional banishments from Rome that Jews experienced.
Both Tacitus and Suetonius actually refer to “Chrestiani”, not “Christiani” — a detail indicating that this was the name by which they were commonly known in the early second century.
What seems to have happened under Claudius and then again under Nero is the temporary banishment of some Jewish sectarians from the city of Rome, but not, in any event, persons who would logically have been labelled at the time as ‘a new and evil superstitio’, words which were used only much later by Roman officials to label Christians.
At the time, and indeed up to the decades after 100 C.E., among Roman writers, including Tacitus, it was the Jews rather than the Christians whose beliefs and practices were being labelled a superstitio, albeit not a novel one.
Clement’s Letter to the Corinthians
Here we read of
certain women who were spectacularly executed, dressed up as Danaids and Dircae. They had been denounced as Christians by their jealous husbands.
The trope of the jealous spouse delating his wife to Roman authorities in the city of Rome is also found in the writings of Justin Martyr who was probably writing in the mid-second century. The two narrative lines look too similar to be independent of one another.
Prior to this episode the letter notes in very general terms that
Through envy and jealousy, the greatest and most righteous pillars [of the Church] have been persecuted and put to death.
No names; no date; no place. But the following passage speaks of Paul:
Let us set before our eyes the illustrious apostles. . . . Owing to envy, Paul also obtained the reward of patient endurance, after being seven times thrown into captivity, compelled to flee, and stoned. After preaching both in the east and west, he gained the illustrious reputation due to his faith, having taught righteousness to the whole world, and come to the extreme limit of the west, and suffered martyrdom under the prefects. Thus was he removed from the world . . .
Again, there is no connection with Nero or with the Fire.
The problems here are almost overwhelming. No specifically identifiable author can be fixed for these letters. [Shaw in fact introduces him as “Pseudo-Clement”.] The third or fourth bishop of Rome has been proposed, but there are numerous pseudepigraphical texts attached to his name and no certain provenience or date can be established for the text.
It is possible that a Christian writer of second-century date intended this passage to refer to events connected with Nero and the fire. Presuming this much to be true, one might then further speculate about what was happening to the women concerned.
But between such hypotheses and the text there are considerable unfillable gaps in the evidence. Therefore, unless one simply presumes, in a complete void of supporting data, that the words in the pseudo-Clement must have some relationship to the fire in 64 C.E., there is nothing in the text that would lead any reasonably critical reader to connect the two events.
It is best dismissed from serious consideration of this problem as yet another one of the parasitic texts that have come to be attached to the fire and the first persecution under Nero in the assiduous hunt for any possible evidence that might strengthen the general argument.
Tacitus and context
Tacitus presents no problems for Shaw until he gets to that part where Nero feels forced to deal with rumours relating to responsibility for the fire. Tacitus does not believe the Christians were guilty, but at the same time he never tells us who he thinks were culpable.
Shaw accepts the high likelihood that rumours about who was responsible for the fire were rife. But then when explaining whom Nero scapegoated Tacitus enters the realm of anachronism.
Notice that he says that those whom Nero rounded up “were called Christians/Chrestians”. This is quite improbable. The name of Christian was not applied so early as the identifier of this Jewish sect. Then notice Tacitus explaining to his readers that these Christians were just as people in his own day thought of them — the harbingers of a new and degraded form of superstitio.
[H]is words are structurally parallel to the near contemporary sentence found in Suetonius: (a) a certain people were punished who were Christians, and (b) this is who these people were: a distinctive kind of people who embodied a new and evil superstitio (meaning, basically, a bad or unacceptable religion).
Tacitus and Suetonius speak elsewhere of the Jews as representing a pernicious religion, of expulsions of Jews from Rome, of corrupt practices coming from the east, including Judea. The Roman satirist Juvenal, another contemporary, wrote in the same vein of the Jews. The fears and loathing were all set in the late first and early second century among these literary elite. Further, Tacitus’s friend Pliny also described Christians in the same terms (the same words), seeing them as a plague spreading throughout the countryside of his province.
Tacitus describes the Christians in the same way, as a plague or contagion, and likewise emanating from Judea. He is expressing the knowledge and judgments of his own time.
He then returns to the events of Nero’s time.
At first those who confessed were taken away for punishment; subsequently others who were denounced by others were rounded up. This second group were singled out because others believed they had a general “hatred for humankind”. Up until the time of Tacitus this expression had been used of an ethnic group to refer to the Jews.
Tacitus composed this passage approximately at the end of the second decade of the second century, perhaps assembling notes and other research earlier in the years after 110 C.E. when he had completed his Histories. It betrays some modernizing or up-dating of the facts, among them calling Pontius Pilatus, the governor of Judaea, a procurator. The rank was true of Tacitus’ own time, but not of Pilatus’ own when praefectus was the title held by the governor of Judaea. The historian certainly knew the difference between governors who were praefecti and those who were procuratores, and elsewhere he notes the distinction.
Such modest modernizings occur outside of this particular passage, however, and so are typical of the writer.
For example, when Tacitus says that there arose a distaste towards Nero for his executions because they were perceived to be a concession to the emperor’s bestiality and not a contribution to the utilitas publica of the state, he is surely echoing a dominant ideology not of the 60s but of his own age. Another move of this kind, as we have just noted, is the transfer of the ‘hatred of humankind’ label to Christians, probably made in parallel with the use of the specific name of Chrestiani for them.
As mentioned above, Tacitus’s applying the term of Christian to the time of the 60s was another anachronism. It would take a separate article to cover the evidence for this word not being generally known among the elites of the likes of Tacitus, Juvenal, Pliny and Suetonius until the early second century. Perhaps I might write that later.
Recall Pliny’s second century letter to the emperor Trajan confessing that he had little idea on how to judge the Christians who were being brought before him. He lamented the lack of any known precedents for how this group ought to be treated. Yet a man in Pliny’s position could not have failed to have known that Christians had been condemned to death by torture had such an event really happened. He certainly knew of the Great Fire. He and Tacitus were junior senators in the time of Domitian when the fire was still being commemorated on public boundary markers.
The gaps are striking lacunae in the knowledge of a senator from Italy, frequently resident in or near the imperial capital, who was well informed on these matters, if in fact Christians had been found guilty of a monstrous crime against the Roman state in the mid-60s.
Furthermore, the routine fashion in which Pliny phrases his ignorance presumes that the emperor himself did not expect Pliny or any other high-ranking Roman to possess such obvious knowledge of the Christians.
How, then, Shaw asks, was this new information about the Christians circulating among the governing officials at the time? By informal exchanges, in the course of their many known personal communications. It is most likely that Tacitus and Pliny exchanged information on these Christians who, as Pliny records, appeared to be becoming a noticeable social nuisance.
The punishments inflicted
Often enough punishments that in some way mimicked the crime were imposed. That those accused of starting the fire that destroyed a large segment of Rome were set alight as human torches is an example of this practice. What is missing in the punishments described, however, is anything suggesting a Christian association. There were no crucifixions, for example.
What actually happened
- Shaw accepts that Tacitus was a relatively reliable historian not given to outright invention
- Tacitus sincerely thought he had, in the late 110s and early 120s, evidence that a new sect known as Christians had been accused of being responsible for starting the fire, and that they were punished by Nero in order to deflect suspicions directed at himself.
The historian composed his narrative accordingly and, as has been frequently noted, he did it with a consummate art and skill that wove together themes of impending disaster, a final conflagration, and a tyrannical emperor.
And this evidence, focusing its special emphasis on the Christians and the execution of their leader under Pontius Pilatus in the reign of Tiberius, appears to have come to his attention after he wrote the Histories. Even given that the surviving part of the Histories under consideration was setting up the subsequent war and was a set-apart programmatic ethnography of the Jews in Judaea, two things are striking.
- In the Annales, Tacitus lays stress on the execution of Jesus by Pontius Pilatus under Tiberius. The origins of a terrible affliction that was to erupt again later and to threaten the Empire are located by him in Judaea and in the reign of Tiberius.
- Yet in the Histories he had nothing to say about any of this. His sole remark, in just three words, is that everything in Judaea was just fine under Tiberius: ‘sub Tiberio quies’.
Despite the historian’s different agenda in the Histories, that silence, I would argue, suggests that a different kind of information had come to the historian’s attention in the years after he wrote the Histories.
Evidently two developments had taken place prior to his writing the Annales:
- Nero had somehow come to be connected with the Christians;
- Christians were linked to those who were punished after the Great Fire.
These developments were arbitrary, matters of choice, and not inevitable. This conclusion is based on subsequent Christian writings, in particular that of Lactantius. Lactantius wrote accounts of the wrongful persecutions of Christians by Roman rulers yet he omits any mention of a fire in the time of Nero. The reason for Nero attacking the Christians (including the deaths of Peter and Paul), according to Lactantius, was the same as we read of in Pliny’s correspondence: the pagan cults were being abandoned because of the success of Christian preaching.
It is hard to believe that Lactantius was wholly unaware of Tacitus. He nevertheless does not subscribe to the historian’s account of Nero’s reign. The entirety of his focus in condemning Nero concentrates on the preaching of Peter and Paul at Rome and the effects of their ideas in the city. The absence is doubly striking since it was precisely a fire at Nicomedia (two of them, in fact) that caused Galerius and Diocletian to turn on the Christians in the Great Persecution of 303 C.E. Deliberately to overlook and to ignore such a parallel with an earlier known tyrant whom Lactantius himself accepts persecuted Christians, and thereby to miss the opportunity to tie together the first and the last of the persecutors, is almost inexplicable unless he was unaware of the connection or had discounted it for some reason.
The lack of connection is all the more striking since Lactantius was well aware of the tradition that Nero was a persecutor of Christians and of the rumours that Nero was going to return to earth, in some form, to renew the persecution.
Around the turn of the century, then, an identifiable group, disruptive to the social order and known as Christians, were coming to the notice of the ruling classes. The danger they presented to society meant that they could be punished for being a Christian.
At the same time a Nero myth was maturing among the lower classes. Nero was seen as a benefactor of the poor and common persons and a future restorer of a golden age. Myths that Nero would one-day return to overthrow his enemies had circulated. In Jewish apocalyptic mythology Nero was depicted as a bestial figure, no doubt because the war that ended with the destruction of the Temple was commenced under his reign. (Later still Jewish mythology concocted scenarios where Nero converted to Judaism and kept divine vengeance at bay.) The Roman elites, meanwhile, came to remember Nero as a malicious villain.
Christians, like the Jews, came to think of Nero as an evil apocalyptic figure, the one who had supposedly killed Peter and Paul and was the first persecutor of the Christians.
Tacitus himself was well aware of these developments. He wrote of one of several episodes of people in the East gaining following by falsely claiming to be Nero returning to re-claim the empire. He himself loathed Nero.
Shaw is not suggesting Tacitus knowingly concocted the story of the Neronian persecution.
When he wrote these words, he firmly believed (I believe) that there was good evidence that linked these events in a single coherent narrative. The connections were such that Tacitus had at his disposal, in either written or oral sources, what he believed to be credible and compelling grounds to accept the stories that linked the Christians, Nero, and the fire at Rome as elements of a true narrative. Parts came from written records about the fire, and oral recollections; others came from contemporary cognizance of imperial administrators about such an identifiable and threatening group, and still others were further contemporary sources that linked the Christians with Nero.
The result is “a few phrases in a single passage” testifying to the Neronian persecution of Christians because of the fire of Rome and it is constructed from anachronisms.
There is thus no good evidence, Shaw concludes, that Nero was the first persecutor of the Christians, or that he had Christians rounded up for punishment in connection with the fire of Rome.
It’s an interesting hypothesis. It’s worth comparing in detail with the alternative arguments that the entire passage is a later forgery.
All images from Wikimedia commons.
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