On June 30th, the day after the feast of Saints Peter and Paul, we remember the Christians of Rome martyred with them in the persecution under the Emperor Nero in the mid 60s, a persecution that shook the early Christian church.
It began with an early morning fire that broke out on July 19, 64 in a small shop by the Circus Maximus and spread rapidly to other parts of Rome, raging nine days through the city’s narrow street and alleyways where more than a million people lived in apartment blocks of flimsy wooden construction.
Only two areas escaped the fire; one of them, Trastevere, across the Tiber River, had a large Jewish population.
Nero, at his seaside villa in Anzio when the blaze began, delayed returning to the city. Not a good move for a politician, even an emperor. The people, angered by his absence, began to believe that he had set the fire himself so he could rebuild the city on grand plans of his own.
To stop the rumors, Nero looked for someone to blame. He chose a group of renegade Jews called Christians, whose reputation was tarnished by incidents years earlier when the Emperor Claudius banished some of them from Rome after rioting occurred in the synagogues over Jesus Christ.
“Nero was the first to rage with Caesar’s sword against this sect,” the early-Christian writer Tertullian wrote. “To suppress the rumor,” the Roman historian Tacitus says, “Nero created scapegoats. He punished with every kind of cruelty the notoriously depraved group known as Christians.”
We don’t know their names. Just how long the process went on or how many were killed, the Roman historians do not say.
There were possibly about 60,000 Jewish merchants and slaves living in the Rome then; some followed Jesus, even before Peter and Paul arrived in the city. At the time of the great fire these Christians had broken with the Jewish community.
Where they lived and met was well known. The Roman authorities, following usual procedure, seized some of them and forced them by torture to give the names of others.
“First, Nero had some of the members of this sect arrested. Then, on their information, large numbers were condemned — not so much for arson, but for their hatred of the human race. Their deaths were made a farce.” (Tacitus)
The Christians were killed with exceptional cruelty in Nero’s gardens and in public places like the race course on Vatican Hill. “Mockery of every sort accompanied their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.” (Tacitus)
Nero went too far, even for Romans used to barbaric cruelty. “There arose in the people a sense of pity. For it was felt that they (the Christians) were being sacrificed for one man’s brutality rather than to the public interest.” (Tacitus)
How did those Roman Christians react as victims of this absurd, unjust tragedy? Did they ask where God was, why did this happen, why didn’t God stop it? Some believers even turned them in.
Could the Gospel of Mark, which experts say was written shortly after this tragedy in Rome, be an attempt to answer these questions? Jesus, innocent and good, experienced death at the hands of wicked men, the gospel says. He suffered a brutal, absurd death. It gives no answer to the question of suffering except to say that God saved his Son from death.
The Gospel of Mark also presents Peter’s denial of Jesus in his Passion in unsparing terms, without excusing words. Is it calling the Roman church experiencing betrayals to forgive as God forgave his fallen apostle?
Finally, the Christians of Rome would surely ask whether they should stay in this city, this Babylon, a city that meted out so much evil to them. Should we go to a safer, better place?
They stayed in the city to work for its good. God strengthen us through the prayers of the martyrs of Rome.