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from issue no. 09 - 2004

The burning of Rome and the first persecution

«He neither spared Rome nor its people»

The fire started by Nero in July 64 and the persecution of the Christians that resulted

by Marta Sordi

The burning of Rome, Robert Hubert (1733- 1808), Musée André Malraux, Le Havre, France

The burning of Rome, Robert Hubert (1733- 1808), Musée André Malraux, Le Havre, France

With the exception of Tacitus (Annales XV, 38), who along with the version of the fire wilfully caused by Nero (dolo principis) also knew the version of those who attributed the fire to accident (forte), all the ancient sources blame it with certainty on Nero, from his contemporary Pliny the Elder, who probably underlies the later tradition (Naturalis historia XVII, 1, 5), to the Senecan author of the Octavia, to Suetonius (Nero, 38), to Dio (LXII, 16, 18). It broke out on 19 July 64 and, according to Suetonius, the fire lasted six days and seven nights, but immediately broke out again, spreading from the property of Tigellinus, so feeding suspicion of the emperor, and went on for three more days, as documented by an inscription (CIL V, 1, 829, that gives a duration of nine days).
The moderns now tend to reject any direct responsibility of Nero for the fire: all the sources agree, however, in saying that people were seen spreading the fire once it had started. For those who favour his guilt they were acting iussu principis, «by order of the emperor», for those who see him as innocent - according to them the fire broke through carelessness, spontaneous combustion, the hot summer, the wind - they were doing it «so they could do their looting more easily». According to Suetonius and Dio, however, they were cubicularii (servants) of the emperor and even soldiers, and their presence might justify the worst suspicions. Collating Tacitus and Suetonius it emerges that the precautions and attempts to intervene were interpreted as evidence of Nero’s guilt: in particular the burning down by soldiers of buildings close to what was to become the Domus aurea and the prohibition on the rightful owners to approach their houses to save what could be saved and recover the dead, fed much suspicion. The suspicion was also nourished by the attribution to the emperor of a precise motive: not that accepted as certain by Suetonius and Dio, but not by Tacitus, of the desire to see Rome perish under his reign, as Priam had seen Troy perish (a desire crowned by his famous harping), but above all by his contempt for old Rome, with its narrow streets and old buildings, and the wish to engage in a great building project and become the new founder of Rome.
Tacitus is the only one of our sources who says that Nero, in order to silence the voices accusing him of the fire, made up the false accusation against the Christians (Annales XV, 44): he got his information, certainly, from the accusatory sources (the sources in favor of his innocence blame nobody for the fire, it broke out by accident), then, in all probability, from Pliny. For Pliny, as for Tacitus, the Christians were innocent of the burning of Rome and the torture they were subject to stirred pity, even if the Christians, blameless of the fire, were certainly guilty, according to our source, of an exitiabilis superstitio (baleful cult). The testimony of Tacitus, clearly against the Christians for their superstitio, but convinced of their innocence in the burning, shows the groundlessness of the notion of those among the moderns who accuse the Christians of having set fire to Rome out of their belief in the coming parusìa (the return of Christ on earth).
The distinction between the false accusation of being arsonists, that according to Tacitus was levelled at the Christians of Rome, and that of superstitio illicita (illegal cult), the only one known to Suetonius (Nero, 16,2), levelled at Christians throughout the Empire, is not, as is often believed, the result of two versions of the same events related by different sources, but the outcome of two different legal dispositions, of which the second is certainly prior to the first. The First Epistle of Peter (4,15), datable in my view to between 62 and 64, is alert to the possibility that the Christians may be incriminated for being Christians not only in Rome but throughout the Empire, and presupposes widespread hostility (cf. 1Pt 4,12), that fits well with the accusations of flagitia (ignominious crimes), that according to Tacitus made Christians hateful to the vulgus (the common people). But if the atmosphere of the First Epistle of Peter is that presupposed by Tacitus, the criminalizing of Christians is certainly what is known to Suetonius and cannot refer to an imperial edict (such as incrimination for the burning of Rome), but only to a senatusconsultum, a deposition which, in the Julio-Claudian era, regulated religious questions. The institutum (institution) of which Suetonius speaks, the institutum Neronianum of which Tertullian speaks (Ad nationes, 7,14), was not an edict nor a senatusconsultum, but a precedent of fact: it was the application which Nero, dedicator damnationis nostrae (author of our condemnation, Tertullian, Apologeticum V, 3), was the first emperor to make, immediately after 62, of the senatusconsultum which in 35 had rejected Tiberius’ proposal to recognize as lawful the cult of Christ and that had made Christianity a superstitio illicita throughout the Empire. Tiberius’ veto had blocked its application and the situation remained unchanged down to 62, when the killing in Judea of James the Less, decided by the high priest Ananos, was made possible only by the momentary absence of the Roman governor. But in 62 there was a decisive shift, not only in relationships between the Empire and the Christians, but in the whole of Nero’s policy: it was the moment of Seneca’s withdrawal from political life, of the death of Burrus, replaced as Praetorian Prefect by Tigellinus, of the repudiation of Octavia and marriage to the judeizing Poppea, of the break with the Stoics of the ruling class and of the definitive abandonment of the Julio-Claudian management of the principate in favor of one of an orientalizing and theocratic sort. Christians and Stoics were attacked in the same years and both criminalized in the eyes of public opinion: in the judgment of ignorant people the Stoics were aerumnosi Solones (tormented Solons) according to Persius (Satirae III, 79), in a graffito in Pompeii the Christians are described as saevi Solones (merciless Solons): according to the First Epistle of Peter (4,4) they were slandered «because they did not run into the confusion of riotousness». The climate in which these accusations were formulated is the same: against the Stoics of the ruling class the political weapon of the lex maiestatis (law for the defense of the State) was used; against the Christians it was enough to resurrect the old senatusconsultum of the 35.
The first victim of Nero’s decision to attack the Christians on the basis of the old senatusconsultum was, in my view, Paul, who was well known in court circles: the incrimination is testified to in the Second Epistle to Timothy, written in the autumn of a year that could well be 63 (cf. 2Tm 4, 21). Paul was once more in prison in Rome, but this time awaiting sentence, but not certainly for the fire (precisely because he was under “civil” arrest Paul could ask for books and a cloak). The arrest and the sentence of Peter, together with that of the other Christians of Rome, was instead to take place after the fire of 64: his martyrdom, by crucifixion in the horti neroniani (the gardens of Nero), cannot be separated - as collation of the description of Clemens Romanus (1Cor 5) and that of Tacitus (Annales XV, 44) reveals - from that of the multitudo ingens (enormous crowd) – poly plethos that Nero offered as entertainment, along with a circense ludicrum (circus show), to the people of Rome, making available hortos suos (his gardens): Guarducci has suggested the festivities of 13 October 64, some months after the fire, when the persistence of suspicions against the emperor may have prompted him to look for scapegoats.

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