June 30th, the day after the feast of Saints Peter and Paul, we remember the Christians martyred with them in Nero’s persecution in the mid 60s, a persecution that shook the early church of Rome.
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 the city, raging nine days through Rome’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. Angered by his absence, people began believing that he 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, how long the process went on or how many were killed: the Roman historians do not say. Possibly 60,000 Jewish merchants and slaves lived in the Rome then; some followed Jesus, even before Peter and Paul arrived in the city. Before the great fire these Christians had broken with the Jewish community.
Following usual procedure, the Roman authorities 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)
You can imagine how those Roman Christians reacted as victims of this absurd, unjust tragedy. Did they ask where God was, why this happened, why didn’t God stop it? What about their fellow believers who turned them in?
The Gospel of Mark, written shortly after this tragedy in Rome, was likely written to answer these questions. Jesus, innocent and good, experienced death at the hands of wicked men, that gospel insists. He suffered a brutal, absurd death. Mark’s gospel gives no answer to the question of suffering except to say that God saved his Son from death.
The Gospel of Mark also presents an unsparing account of Peter’s denial of Jesus in his Passion and offers no excusing words for his failure as a church’s leader. Was it calling the Roman church experiencing betrayals to forgive as God forgave his fallen apostle?
Finally, the Christians of Rome would surely ask: should they stay in this city, this Babylon, a city where they found so much evil? Should they go to a safer, better place?
In spite of it all, they stayed in the city to work for its good. Is the “Quo Vadis?” story an answer to that question?
May God strengthen us through the prayers of the martyrs of Rome to understand the evil we face in the light of the Passion of Jesus. Grant through them too, the patience to do God’s will where we are.
There’s a video about the persecution at the beginning of this blog.
Here’s a video about Peter’s encounter with Jesus as he flees from the city during this same persecution: “Quo Vadis?”
Here are Stations of the Cross in the gardens of Ss.Giovanni e Paolo in Rome, once the gardens of the Emperor Nero. Were some of the early Roman martyrs put to death here?