Rome Burning — and the Christians: A New Study

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

Anthony Barrett – UBC profile

Historian of ancient Rome Anthony Barrett draws upon updated archaeological studies to supplement his analysis of the literary sources in order to especially analyze how the fire contributed to the downfall of Nero. Included in his study is a chapter on the evidence that Christians were singled out as scapegoats by Nero and suffered barbaric deaths as a result.

Not one of our literary sources for the fire – Tacitus, Suetonius, Dio — was contemporary with the fire itself, but they did draw upon other sources that were. Tacitus, in whose work we read the account of persecutions of the Christians, made use of works by Pliny the Elder who lived at the time of Nero and often mentioned his name. Tacitus further refers to elderly citizens of his day who were alive at the time of the fire but “frustratingly, he seems to have chosen to make relatively little, if any, use of” their recollections. At least as important to keep in mind when thinking through the account of Tacitus is Barrett’s assessment of him as a historian:

Tacitus’s account of the fire is an excellent example of his great narrative skills. Serious historian that he is, he expresses appropriate skepticism about Nero’s culpability, the only one of the three main authorities to do so, and records that the sources are divided on the issue. But his hostility to the emperor is such that by the end of his narrative the reader is left with a vaguely defined but strangely compelling impression that somehow Nero’s behavior was so abominable that he must be held accountable for what had happened. That is a remarkable feat of writing. (p. 13 – my highlighting in all quotations)

One may wonder how archaeological evidence could be relevant to the question of Christian persecutions in the wake of the fire but it is important to know what areas suffered in relation to the Jewish area since Christians were considered members of a Jewish sect. More generally, Barrett, a historian and not an archaeologist, makes an interesting comment on the evidence from archaeology that is worth keeping in mind next time one is addressing René Salm’s analysis of the archaeological reports on Nazareth:

There seems to be a rather dangerous article of faith that what is preserved in the archaeological record is ipso facto more reliable than information derived from literature, on the grounds that archaeology is uncontaminated by authorial bias.We must avoid falling prey to this widely held misconception—the situation is by no means so clear-cut. While the physical material itself may be untainted, it is almost never as explicit as its literary counterpart, and our understanding of that material is very dependent on how it is interpreted and presented to us by the archaeologist. And since archaeology very often involves the ordered destruction of the site being examined, and the archive of the site will as often as not be held in storage, for practical purposes the information to which we have access will ultimately come filtered through the investigator’s interpretations. In the case of the Great Fire we are fortunate that the main body of archaeological evidence for the event has been brought to light by a highly professional team led by Clementina Panella for the Sapienza University of Rome, and it has been published to high scholarly standards. But these standards are not necessarily maintained by other excavators, and elsewhere we must be on guard against conclusions that can be highly speculative and at times fueled by an almost poetic imagination. The archaeologist’s idiosyncrasies and preconceptions can occasionally shape what is supposedly objective evidence. (p. 16)

Amen to that manifold more times for “the place where Jesus grew up”.

Enough of the preliminaries. Let’s get to Barrett’s chapter five titled “The Christians and the Great Fire”.

We rely entirely upon just one source for the view that Nero attempted to deflect public suspicion that he had been responsible for the fire by singling out the Christians.

Despite Nero’s best efforts, Tacitus tells us that nothing that the emperor did, whether in the civil or the religious sphere, could lay to rest the persistent nasty rumor that had taken hold, that he had personally ordered the fire. Nero was astute enough to realize that once a negative idea has been implanted in the popular mind, it is almost impossible to dislodge it. He needed a dramatic solution, and dramatic gestures were his forte. The account in the Annals of what came next— it is our one and only source of information—is arguably the most disputed text in the whole of Classical literature. Complicating the debate is the question of whether this section of the Annals is an authentic piece of Tacitus, an important issue addressed later in this chapter. (p. 145)

And a few lines later the historical significance of this event strikes the reader:

It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of this episode in the history of the Christian church. . . .  It is, as Brent Shaw puts it, a “foundational event” in the annals of Christianity. In a way it can be viewed as symbolically setting the scene for the repeated martyrdoms that Christians will endure at the hands of Roman authorities in subsequent centuries. It is also a major factor in the persistence of Nero’s image as the epitome of villainy during the nearly two thousand years since then.

Here is a key part of the passage as translated by Barrett:

Annals 15.44.2. But neither human resourcefulness nor the emperor’s largesse nor appeasement of the gods could stop belief in the nasty rumor that an order had been given for the fire. To dispel the gossip Nero therefore contrived culprits on whom he inflicted the most exotic punishments. These were people hated for their shameful offenses whom the common people called Chrestians [or Christians].

44.3. The man who gave them their name, Christus, had been executed during the rule of Tiberius by the procurator Pontius Pilatus. The pernicious superstition had been temporarily suppressed, but it was starting to break out again, not just in Judea, the starting point of that curse, but in Rome as well, where all that is abominable and shameful in the world flows together and gains popularity.

44.4. And so, at first, those who confessed were apprehended and, subsequently, on the disclosures they made, a huge number were found guilty [or “were linked”]—more because of their hatred of mankind than because they were arsonists. As they died, they were further subjected to insult. Covered with hides of wild beasts, they perished by being torn to pieces by dogs; or they would be fastened to crosses and, when daylight had gone, set on fire to provide lighting at night.

44.5. Nero had offered his gardens as a venue for the show, and he would also put on circus entertainments, mixing with the plebs in his charioteer’s outfit or standing up in his chariot. As a result, guilty though these people were and deserving exemplary punishment, pity for them began to well up because it was felt that they were being exterminated not for the public good, but to gratify one man’s cruelty.

On the two sections, 44.2 and 44.3, Barrett remarks,

This whole section constitutes in all only some 154 words in the original Latin text (“some” is added here as a caution because we can not be totally sure of the exact wording of the original manuscript). We can go a little further. Scholarly interest has focused almost exclusively on the first two sections (15.44.2–3), and together these produce a total of some ninety-three words. But this relatively brief passage, fewer than one hundred words in length, has prompted several books and perhaps as many as a hundred scholarly articles dedicated totally, or at least substantially, to the topic. Moreover, this vast and flourishing scholarship industry has so far exhibited no signs of recession. As measured by the number of words produced in research publications relative to the number of words in the text being analyzed, this handful of sentences is beyond doubt the most researched, scrutinized, and debated of any in Classical antiquity. What follows in this chapter can convey only a brief summary of these prodigious scholarly endeavors.13

In the next post I will attempt a “brief summary” of Barrett’s “brief summary” and address his own conclusions.

Till then, endnote 13 directs readers to details of that discussion that I reformat with added links:

13. The early sources are summarized in

Canfield (1913), 45–56, 141–60,

and a useful, if selective, bibliography up to 1934 is found in Cambridge Ancient History X (1934), 982–83.

From 1948 on, we have the benefit of the valuable surveys conducted periodically by Classical World:

48 (1955), 121–25;

58 (1964), 69–83;

63 (1970), 253–67;

71 (1977), 1–32;

80 (1986), 73–147;

Shaw (2015), 98–100 provides a useful bibliography of more recent contributions.

Other sources cited by Anthony Barrett and of interest to some Vridar readers include Richard Carrier’s 2014 article and even Earl Doherty’s 2009 book Jesus Neither God Nor Man – the Case for a Mythical Jesus.

Barrett, Anthony A. Rome Is Burning: Nero and the Fire That Ended a Dynasty. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2021.