This week, in the year AD 64, a fire began in the city of Rome that changed the course of history.
The fire raged six days before being brought under control. When the smoke cleared on July 23, seven of Rome’s fourteen districts had been partly destroyed and three districts were completely obliterated. Then came the rumors that changed everything.
How the Persecution Began
In the aftermath of the inferno, the Emperor Nero had—according to the Roman historian Tacitus—
food brought from Ostia and neighboring towns, and the price of corn was reduced. … Yet these measures, for all their popular character, earned no gratitude. For a rumor had spread that, while the city was burning, Nero had gone on his private stage and…had sung of the destruction of Troy.
Unable to stop the spread of rumors that he had sung about Troy while his henchmen torched the city, the Emperor Nero—again, in the words of Tacitus—
falsely charged … and punished … the persons commonly called “Christians,” who were already despised. … Those who confessed they were Christians were arrested; … a vast multitude was convicted, not so much on the charge of burning the city as on the charge that they were “odious to the human race.” In their deaths they were made the subjects of sport: for they were covered with the hides of wild beasts, and mauled by dogs, or nailed to crosses, or set fire to, and when the day waned, burned as torches for the evening lights. … A feeling of compassion arose towards the sufferers because—though they were indeed guilty and deserving of exemplary capital punishment—they seemed to be being executed not for the good of the public but because of the ferocity of one man.
Why Nero Couldn’t Have Fiddled While Rome Burned (and Probably Didn’t Play the Lyre Either)
The saying that survives from the accusations leveled against Nero is that the emperor “fiddled while Rome burned.”
But Nero couldn’t have fiddled while Rome burned.
The violin wasn’t invented until the sixteenth century, so not even someone as crazy and corrupt as Nero could have played a violin while his city smoldered. He probably didn’t play the lyre or flute during these events either. According to the most reliable reports, Nero was miles away, in Antium, when the fire broke out. Soon after hearing about the fire, Nero headed to Rome. As soon as he reached the city, Nero “opened the Field of Mars and even his own gardens for the relief of the homeless,” according to Tacitus.
The persecution of Christians that resulted from Nero’s false accusation was severe—but it seems to have remained limited to the city of Rome. Later persecutions of Christians broke out in other areas of the Roman Empire for more than two centuries. These persecutions erupted and faded in a variety of places all the way into the fourth century AD. That’s when the Emperor Constantine claimed to have become a Christian. It was Constantine’s confirmation of Galerius’ edict of toleration that finally brought the Roman persecutions to an end.
If you’re interested in learning more about the history of Christianity, take a look at the book and video series Christian History Made Easy.
Discuss in the Comments:
Watch this video about Emperor Nero and the fire in Rome. What did you learn about the early history of Christianity that you didn’t know before?