2022-01-13

Rome Burning – the Christian Problem in the Annals of Tacitus

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by Neil Godfrey

This post concludes Anthony Barrett’s discussion of the account of the persecution of the Christians in the Annals by Tacitus.

But there are oddities in this part of the Annals that are so serious that in the late nineteenth century the Christian episode was denounced in its entirety as an interpolation, a forgery in the style of Tacitus that had been inserted at some later date into the manuscript almost certainly not by accident, but in order deliberately to deceive.

61. Hochart (1885); Dando-Collins (2010), 9–16, 106–10, offers a variant, with Egyptians substituted for Christians in the putative interpolation

But Anthony Barrett follows that statement up with:

The sweeping claim that the Tacitean passage was a forgery has won over very few adherents.61 

And then:

The vocabulary and syntax and general Latin style, it must be acknowledged, perfectly align with the accepted corpus of Tacitus’s writings, and the text lacks the exaggerated mannerisms that might be expected in a forged piece. If the whole chapter is indeed an interpolation, it must have been inserted into the manuscript by at least the end of the fourth century AD, since parts of it are cited by a Christian writer active in the very early fifth century, Sulpicius Severus, most familiar as the author of the celebrated Life of Saint Martin.

Another context, another author:
One of those arguments is the claim that such an “original passage” contains phrases and vocabulary characteristic of Josephus. But if a Christian copyist were seeking to create a convincing interpolation, he would likely try to employ Josephan fingerprints to make it appear authentic; and if he were introducing terms or ideas similar to those expressed elsewhere in Josephus he would have precedents to draw on. If he were someone who worked with the manuscripts of Josephus on a regular basis, such imitation might well become second nature to him. Guignebert opined (
Jesus, p. 17): “It may be admitted that the style of Josephus has been cleverly imitated, a not very difficult matter…”  Earl Doherty, Jesus Neither God Nor Man, p. 535

The putative forger, who will have succeeded in a deceptive coup of dazzling brilliance, would have been one of two things. He might have been a Christian, but one smart and sophisticated enough to know that by castigating his own faith and generating a partially negative image of Christianity he could throw sand in the eyes of a normally skeptical reader and thus create an irresistible believability. Hence, while the chapter is manifestly anti-Neronian, the Christians are deliberately not shown in a particularly favorable light. Or he might have been a pagan, both anti-Christian and anti-Neronian, who took the opportunity to kill two birds with one interpolatory stone.

Scholars whose knowledge of Tacitus is unsurpassed have accepted the Latin of the text as genuinely Tacitean, but it needs to be acknowledged that there is a long history of literary texts that, like works of art, have been recognized by gifted and honest experts as genuine but have proved ultimately to be phony. Moreover, those scholars who accept that the Tacitean passage is genuine—and they are in the overwhelming majority—do acknowledge that it exhibits some troubling features. One section of the narrative is particularly awkward: the brief summary that the writer provides of the background of the Christians. (Barrett, p. 158 — bolded highlighting is mine in all quotations)

So what are the “troubling features”?

Pontius Pilate and the manner of his introduction

Pontius Pilate is introduced as “procurator” without any mention of whereabouts in the empire he was located.

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 . . .  Annals 15.44.3

A Christian reader would, of course, immediately think of Judea. But anyone else?

On the other hand, the earlier books of Annals are missing. Perhaps Pilate’s career was covered in those. That’s possible, yet we cannot overlook that Tacitus did say in another work, Histories, that “all was quiet” in Judea during the reign of Tiberius. We would not, from that line, expect much of troublesome note to have been written about Pilate in any other lost work.

Even the mere fact that Pilate’s term of office is mentioned as the context for the death of Christ comes as something of a surprise; it is a detail about Christ that would be of very little interest to a Roman but would have had considerable significance for a Christian reader. (Barrett, p. 159)

Another “troubling feature” is the office of “procurator” here. Literary and archaeological evidence assures us that Pilate was not a “procurator” [=governor of a small province] but a “prefect” [=commander of troops established within some provinces].

Tacitus is elsewhere quite punctilious in his use of such terminology and makes a careful distinction between procurators and prefects. . . . [T]he error over Pontius Pilate’s office . . . is a basic historical blunder and, as such, very surprising indeed if made by Tacitus. (Barrett, pp. 159f)

But if Pilate was not a procurator then why would a forger claim that he was? Barrett suggests an answer:

The gospels were written in Greek and before Jerome composed his Vulgate version in the fifth century the gospels were translated into at least two Latin versions. These Latin versions translate the loosely described position of Pontius Pilate in Luke 3:1 (hegemoneuo = “to be leader”) with the general Latin procurante Pontio Pilato — the verb “procurare” meaning “to administer”. Whoever was describing Pilate as “procurator” in Annals 15.44.3 may have been influenced by the Latin wording of Luke 3:1.

Christianity Suppressed?

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 . . .  Annals 15.44.3

We have no evidence that Rome ever attempted to “suppress” the new religion (or Jewish faction, as it originally was) in Judea soon after its birth. The only opposition we are aware of comes from Jewish powers.

The notion that the early believers were officially oppressed seems more distinctly Christian rather than Roman. (Barrett, p. 161)

Called Christians/Chrestians?

 These were people hated for their shameful offenses whom the common people called Chrestians [or Christians]. — Annals 15.44.2

How likely is it that as early as the year 64 in Rome a certain Jewish sect was identified as a distinct separate body with the label “Christians” (or “Chrestians”)? The author of Acts informs us that members of the sect were first called Christians in Antioch some time before the mid-50s. But nothing in Paul’s letters suggests his congregations were known by that name. Again in Acts, Paul is identified as a Nazorean when on trial shortly before he was sent to Rome. Even if we were to think that Tacitus used the descriptor known in his own time, we must note that the passage of interest in Annals explicitly notes that the name was used by the common people in the time of Nero. (The manuscript shows that “e” has been erased and replaced with “i” — hence the uncertainty about the original text. Chrestian was a common pronunciation for Christian.)

A Principle of Historiography

Barrett next comes to a theme close to my own heart when engaging with any historical inquiry but especially with discussions relating to Christian origins. If we are to make valid use of a source we need to establish its provenance and the context of its narrative.

But there is also a principle of historiography that takes account not only of what a given source might say, but, paradoxically perhaps, of what it does not say. Such argumenta ex silentio tend not to be given great weight, since there may be a perfectly good reason why a source chooses not to allude to any given event. In the case of the fate of the Christians as described in the Annals, however, the negative evidence seems overwhelming. (Barrett, p. 163)

Other Roman historians who wrote of the fire and who likewise loathed Nero (Suetonius, Cassius Dio) do not make any mention of Nero’s scapegoating the Christians to deflect suspicions directed against him. If the treatment of Christians was so horrendous as to turn public sympathies favourably towards them this does seem at least a little surprising. The naturalist and contemporary of Nero, Pliny the Elder, made many passing remarks about Nero in his works but none reference his treatment of Christians and his son and friend of Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, breathes not a hint of this persecution, not even when apparently discussing his own quandary of how to treat Christians.

But surely most surprising of all is that not a single surviving Christian author before the fifth century appears to know anything about such a persecution. Tertullian, Clement, Eusebius and others were keen to demonstrate the courage with which Christians had faced numerous persecutions and to highlight the providence by which the “church” had endured and survived and even grown despite such treatment from authorities. But none knows anything about the event we read of in Annals 15.

Perhaps Tacitus’s works were not widely read. Tacitus does not appear to have made a strong mark on his immediate posterity but if a persecution of such notoriety had been a matter of wider historical knowledge then it is most remarkable that no mention is made of it in any other source, especially Christian ones, until the fifth century.

The Debate

Polydore Hochart made the case for interpolation in 1885 with Études au sujet de la persécution des Chrétiens sous Néron. Barrett sums up the main themes of academic debates but I’ll post some of it in full here. First, a translation of pages 219-21 of Hochart:

Let us recall in a few words the results to which our study of the account of the persecution of the Christians found in the Annals has just led us.

It is no less probable that the accusation of having set fire to Rome was brought by the people against Nero; he retained all his popularity after the disaster. Therefore, the persecution could not have been caused by the cause which the author indicates.

The Jews who lived in Rome came there freely to practise the profession of divination, and far from complaining of the welcome they received, they were anxious to remain in the capital. They were therefore not hated by the population. There was therefore no reason to impute to them, rather than to other foreigners, the crime of having set fire to the city.

The punishment of fire was not then in use in Rome. The principles of moderation and clemency were the rule of the statesmen in the punishment of the guilty; they rejected cruelty in the application of punishment. In any case, the luminous burning of human bodies was not possible. Such barbarity would have been contrary to the ideas that generally prevailed at the time, and far from being seen with pleasure, it would have aroused indignation.

Finally, the victims could not have been delivered to the flames in Nero’s gardens, since these gardens, says the author, served as an asylum for the population.

This chapter of the fifteenth book of the Annals therefore contains in its statements almost as many inexplicable difficulties as words. It is therefore necessary to consider this account as a fable and to conclude that there is every reason to attribute it to a hand other than that of the Roman historian.

The description of christiani, in fact, was not yet used to specify the disciples of Jesus, and Tacitus could not have used it in this sense. In addition, to state that their number was immense is obviously a deliberate error.

But the introduction into the works of Tacitus of an account of this nature can only be the work of a Christian. We find confirmation of this presumption in the remark that Christ is taken here as a proper name, as a synonym for Jesus, and that Pilate is spoken of as a character well known to the reader; such language can indeed only be that of a Christian addressing Christians.

Finally, the account of the proceedings and the description of the tortures show us a man steeped in the legends of the martyrs.

This chapter must therefore be deleted from the fifteenth book of the Annals.

This deletion will further justify our conclusion by showing that the interpolation was detrimental to the narrative and the sequence of events.

Chapters 38, 39, 40 describe the course of the fire; the 40th and 41st enumerate the losses; the 42nd and 43rd tell us about the rebuilding of Rome; the first part of the 44th (from which we have removed the second) describes the expiatory ceremonies; the 45th makes us aware of the voluntary or imposed contributions which the provinces bore to meet the expenses of the metropolis.

The second part of the 44th chapter is not related to anything that precedes or follows. There is no subsequent event that follows or relates to it; in the whole of the rest of the Annals there is not even an allusion to such a dreadful drama.

That last point is significant in the context of “principles of historiography”. The author introduces the persecution and then suddenly drops it. Tacitus does not explain how this event fits in with his larger theme of Nero’s downfall. We don’t even learn if the scapegoating succeeded in removing popular suspicion from him or not.

But Hochart’s views were not widely accepted. One of the earliest responses was from Henry Furneaux in Cornelii Taciti Annalium ab excessu divi Augusti libri. Vol. 2. published 1891. From page 570-71:

By one recent writer6, the whole passage has been impugned as a Christian forgery, but on grounds slender in themselves1, and involving, as the objector himself sees, a similar attack on the other passages in classical authors of this period2. It may be sufficient to point out that Sulpicius Severus, who has transcribed words of Tacitus in an unquestioned passage (c. 37, 8), has also transcribed a portion of this (see on § 3); also that the style is thoroughly Tacitean throughout, containing a number of words and expressions elsewhere used by the author, and more or less characteristic of him, yet without any such elaborate overimitation as we should expect to detect in even a skilful forgery3. Nor is the subject-matter less characteristic, if we note the struggle between the extreme bitterness and animosity of the general view, and the sense of candour and historical fidelity in dealing with the actual charge against the sufferers, the grudging and hardly acknowledged sympathy, the many unexplained difficulties to which his evident unwillingness to dwell longer on the subject than he can help gives rise. It must seem strange that any one who has studied the interpolated passage in Josephus4, or the correspondence of St Paul and Seneca5, should suppose that it is only a similar, but somewhat more skilful performance of the same kind that lies here before us.

6 P. Hochart, ‘Études au sujet de la persécution des Chrétiens sous Néro,’ Paris, 1885.

1 Hardly any account is taken of the language and style, except to notice (p. 76) the use of ‘Tiberio imperitante’ (on which see note) and the absence of clear construction in § 6 (‘aut crucibus adfixi,’ etc.). To take this as evidence of forgery is to suppose the interpolator, who must otherwise be assumed throughout to have been an excellent classical scholar, to be capable also of lapsing into ungrammatical blunders; a far more improbable supposition than that of a corruption in the MS. The objections drawn from the subject-matter, such as the alleged anticipation in the use of ‘Christiani,’ the omission of any specification of Pilate’s province, etc., and the argument founded on the absence of apparent knowledge of the passage in early Christian writers, are noticed below or in the notes.

2 M. Hochart treats the two letters of Pliny and Trajan as a similar pious fraud, and indeed rejects the whole correspondence of Pliny and Trajan and the fact of a governorship of Bithynia by the former: he also treats as interpolations the passage on the Christians in Suet. Ner. 16 (see p. 575), and the words ‘inpulsore Chresto’ in Suet. Cl. 25. It is difficult to see what object a Christian could have proposed to gain by these two insertions.

3 ‘The principal references to similar words and expressions are given in the notes, and could be further extended if needíful Professor J. E. B. Mayor has forcibly supported the genuineness of Pliny’s letter by similar arguments (Class. Rev. iv. p. 121, foll.)

4 Jos. Ant. 18. 3, 3.

5 ‘These letters are printed as an Appendix in Haase’s edition of Seneca’s works.

Barrett brings Richard Carrier into the discussion by referring to his argument that only the line about Pilate was an interpolation. Carrier begins with Suetonius’s claim that the emperor Claudius (before Nero) had expelled Jews from Rome because of riots instigated by “Chrestus”. (See the previous post for options surrounding Suetonius’s use of that name.) Carrier argues that Chrestus was indeed a troublemaker and that Tacitus had originally spoken of “Chrestians” after the name of this rioter. Despised “Chrestians” who had been led by Chrestus were targeted by Nero.

Carrier’s view has approximate precursors in Paul Saumagne followed by J. Rougé. Translating a summary by Rougé…

If the correspondence of Seneca and St. Paul is to be eliminated from the record of the burning of Rome, the text of Tacitus remains the only witness to a link between the persecution and the disaster. We are therefore entitled to ask what value this testimony has. Far be it from me to assume, as has been done, that it is an interpolation (39); stylistic studies have long since done justice to such hypotheses (40). But I am obliged to note that everything we have examined so far reinforces the hypothesis formulated by Ch. Saumagne. For him, the Annals contained no allusion to the Christians, but referred only to the prosecution of the arsonists (real or false) according to normal procedure. It is in the Histories that Tacitus, according to Pliny who had been on Titus’ staff in Jerusalem, would have introduced a note on the Christians, in connection with the Jews, during the account of the council of war held by Titus before the city. Later – in the fourth century no doubt – a copyist reworked the text of the Annals by introducing the note from the Histories in a rather clumsy way that allows us to see the stitches (41). This transformation predates the Chronicle of Sulpice Severus, which uses the reworked text (42). This reworking can only have been the work of a pagan wishing to arouse a spirit of tolerance by showing that Nero had been the initiator of the persecutions, for a Christian would have had no interest in showing the first martyrs condemned, not for their faith, but as incendiaries. . . . .

(39) V. Hochart, La persécution des Chrétiens sous Néron, Ann de la Fac. des Lettres de Bordeaux, 1884.

(40) H. Fuchs, Tacitus über die Christen, Vig. Christ., IV, 1950, p. 65-93.

(41) Ch. Saumagne, [Les incendiaires de Rome et les lois pénales des Romains, R. H., t. CCXXVII, 1962, p. 337-360]; Tacite et Saint Paul, R.H., CCXXXII, 1964, p. 67-110.

(42) Sulp. Sévère, Chronique, II, 29, 2 Igitur vertit invidiam in Christianos, actaeque in innoxios crudelissimae quaestiones; quin et novae mortes excogitatae, ut ferarum tergis contecti laniatu canum interirent, multi crucibus affixi aut flamma usti, plerique in id reservati, ut cum defecisset dies, in usum nocturni luminis urerentu.

(Rougé, p. 440)

An Unresolved Detail

The one question that Anthony Barrett leaves unresolved is that of the premature confessions.

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. — Annals 15.44.4

Barrett reflects . . .

The notion of an interpolation does not, of course, resolve all the problems. There is still the difficulty of the confessions. We might rationalize that after any major disaster there will always be a small number of people determined to claim responsibility. One need recall only the celebrated case of the Frenchman Robert Hubert who in 1666 confessed to starting the Great Fire of London by setting fire to a building in the Westminster district.120 Even though Hubert was not even in England when the fire broke out, and Westminster was in fact untouched by the disaster, he was arrested, tried, convicted, and hanged. Such was the frenzied temper of the times. There may well have been a small number of similarly misguided souls in the Rome of AD 64 eager to make similar confessions. Or some might have expressed satisfaction at God’s punishment and simply have been misunderstood by non-believers. Or some might have deliberately sought out martyrdom by not denying their guilt when questioned.121 Such individuals would have been rounded up, interrogated, possibly tortured, and then others would have been picked up as collaborators essentially on hearsay and without any actual evidence of arson. These explanations are perhaps rather contrived. But they are not necessary. If the manuscript was tinkered with by an interpolator, it is very possible that some prefatory words explaining the confessions but not fitting the interpolator’s agenda of a Christian involvement in the aftermath of the fire were discarded. In any case, the apparently premature confessions remain a problem whether they were made by Christians or non-Christians.

120 Tinniswood (2003), 163-68.

121 Drinkwater (2019), 246-47.

. . . leaving us a choice:

  • either Tacitus made a mistake in combining two separate events in an account not widely available to early Christian authors;
  • or the reference to Christians is an interpolation

Neither solution is perfect, but each is arguably superior to simply taking the text at face value. Importantly, each removes the punishment of the Christians as an episode of the Great Fire of AD 64. (Barrett, p. 173)

.


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

Rougé, J. “L’incendie de Rome En 64 et l’incendie de Nicomédie En 303.” In Mélanges d’histoire Ancienne Offerts à William Seston, 433–41. Paris: E. de Boccard, 1974. http://archive.org/details/melangesdhistoir0000unse_j8d1.

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3 thoughts on “Rome Burning – the Christian Problem in the Annals of Tacitus”

  1. (excuse my broken english, im french)

    Very good articles. It’s nice to see some light on Polydor Hochart. His book about the persecution is a personal classic.

    By the way i would like to add informations that I find important.

    When Barett say : “if a persecution of such notoriety had been a matter of wider historical knowledge then it is most remarkable that no mention is made of it in any other source, especially Christian ones, until the fifth century”, it is necessary to keep in mind that despite the fact that Sulpicius Severus is a famous christian author and the chronicles dated to the 5th century, this persecution seems totally unknown to christians authors until the discovery of the Chronicles manuscript in the 15th century.

    Indeed, no Christian authors take up this story until the renaissance, after the publication of the chronicles and Tacitus.
    Which is astonishing for an amazing story like this one and from a famous christian author like SS who had great success with his book “Life of Saint-Martin”.

    And that’s not the only problem with “the chronicles”.

    The book contains :

    historical errors
    anachronism
    contradiction with the previous book (Life of Saint Martin)
    The persecution in SS is very close to the text of Tacitus.
    The only quotation from the chronicles in a 7th century text is not found in the manuscript of the chronicles.

    And finally, it was the same person, Poggio Bracciolini who found the only manuscript of the Chronicles of SS.
    We do not know where and who provided this manuscript.

    This same Poggio Bracciolini participated very actively during 2 years, in the mysterious discovery of the manuscript of Tacitus containing this persecution of Christians.
    Only 4 years after the discovery of the Chronicles.
    And again, we don’t know where and who provided this manuscript to Niccoli, a close friend of Poggio.

    Polydor Hochart concluded that Poggio Bracciolini was the author of the interpolation in Tacitus and even more : he was the complete author of the Chronicles + Tacitus.

    I do not necessarily share this extreme conclusion, but the idea that Poggio participated directly or indirectly in the interpolation in Tacitus seems a good solution to explain all these problems.

    You can find more informations in his book : “Nouvelles considérations au sujet des Annales et des Histoires de Tacite, 1894”

  2. I was perplexed by your quotation/translation from Polydore Hochart stating that “The Jews who lived in Rome came there freely to practise the profession of divination”. Here in rural Norfolk (UK), divination is the dubious art of detecting sub-terranean water etc using rods of various descriptions. Another sense of Polydore Hochart’s words would be that the Roman Jews were practising their profession of soothsaying or fortune telling. Elsewhere he also refers to them as faith healers.

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