Rome and the Christians

Rome and the Christians

While I research my next novel (provisionally titled “The Parting of the Ways”), I will occasionally provide glimpses of what I’m learning and how I’m going about it. This is not without risk since the materials I’m studying are often incomplete, open to interpretation, and controversial. I am neither a professional scholar nor a historian, but will do my best to consider the research that’s out there. However, as a novelist trying to fit it all into a meaningful dramatic pattern, I will draw my own conclusions.

Currently, I’m studying the emperor Nero, a remarkable character who presided over the Roman empire during the infancy of Christianity. Nero came to power in 54 AD at the age of sixteen – or rather, power was foisted upon him when his step-father, the emperor Claudius, died. Most likely, Claudius was poisoned by his fourth wife Agrippina, Nero’s mother.

Nero is best known for two allegations about his reign: (1) he fiddled while Rome burned, and (2) he instituted the Roman sport of persecuting Christians – that is, of torturing and murdering them. This sport was to be played, at times vigorously and at times more casually, for about 250 years, until the emperor Constantine changed the rules.

The first allegation regarding Nero is apocryphal, but based on reality. It is true that a great portion of Rome (ten of the fourteen districts) either burned to the ground or were severely harmed by the Great Fire during Nero’s reign. It is also true that Nero cared far more about his career as a musician than about ruling his empire. So much so that he refused to address his soldiers and even the Senate in person, for fear of damaging his singing voice.

The second allegation, that Nero began the systematic Roman persecution of Christians, is true. However, subsequent history has lent it an importance no one could have foreseen in Nero’s time. The Romans persecuted many groups. The Christians were a small sect, at best seen by Romans as an unimportant congregation within the Jewish community, but more often seen as an irritant.

Three credible Roman sources attest to the existence of Christianity during the first generations following the crucifixion of Christ. Pliny the Younger  explains how he disciplined Christians for refusing to worship the emperor. When his interrogations of Christians yielded little information about their faith, he says, “I judged it necessary to find out the truth by torturing two female slaves who were called deaconesses. I discovered nothing else but depraved, excessive superstition.” He concludes: “Whatever the nature of their creed, [their] stubbornness and inflexible obstinacy surely deserve to be punished.”

Suetonius mentions Christ as if he were the leader of the Jews in Rome. "As the Jews were making constant disturbances at the instigation of Christ, Claudius expelled them from Rome." In Suetonius’s view, Jews and Christians were the same people. Christ, a rebel against Rome, was one of their leaders.

Tacitus refers to Christians as “a class hated for their abominations:”

Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty [i.e., crucifixion] during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilate. This deadly (exitiabilis) superstition was thus checked for the moment, but later broke out again not only in Judaea – the first source of the evil – but also in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their center and become popular.

Nero blamed the Great Fire on Christians. The early Christians believed that the end of days was at hand; they may well have celebrated the burning of Rome as proof that Christ was about to return. Some surmise that Christians lived with other Jews in the part of Rome where the fire erupted, the eastern part of the Circus Maximus. Tacitus states that Nero arrested, among the Christians, “all who pleaded guilty” to setting the fire. He adds:

On information they provided, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of burning the city, as of hatred of humanity. Mockery of every sort was added to 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.

These passages in Tacitus, like the passages in Suetonius and Pliny the Younger, are fascinating more because of what they get wrong than for what they get right. First, note that the Christians were generally hated for their “abominations.” What does Tacitus mean? Clues can be found in the early Christian apologists Justin Martyr and Athenagoras. Justin Martyr explains that Romans called the Christians “atheists” because they did not worship Roman gods. I could write at length about this subject, but suffice it to say that when Pompey had entered the Great Temple in Jerusalem, providing Rome with its first glimpse of the Jewish faith, he was astonished to find that there was no statue of any god there. The Romans – and for that matter, the rest of the world – could not understand how the Jews could worship an invisible God. This incomprehension applied also to the Jewish sect of Christians.

Athenagoras, too, attests that the Romans suspected Christians of atheism, and adds that they also accused Christians of cannibalism (because Christians ate the “flesh of Christ” in their rituals), and incest (because they called each other “brother” and “sister” and were reputed to have orgies).

Suppose, then, that the Romans had managed to exterminate the early Christians and that all we knew about Christians came from these early Roman sources. What would we “know”? Our narrative would run something like this: The Christians were originally a group of Jews, led by Christ, who rebelled against Rome. Pontius Pilate crucified Christ, but Christ’s followers gained strength after he died. They believed in no god, they hated humanity, their weird rites included acts of cannibalism and incest, and they tried to burn down Rome.

That would be just about all we would know, from these Roman sources, about the Jewish sect called the “Christians.” It indicates not who the Christians were, or how they perceived themselves, but how others perceived them. It shows how profoundly wrong ancient peoples often (or perhaps always) were in their assessment of other ancient peoples.

Similarly, in my view, some of the early Christians got the Jews wrong. (I am not referring to the followers of James, whom Christ appointed to lead the early sect, but to those who approached Christianity from non-Jewish backgrounds or sought to “sell” Christianity to Romans and other gentiles.) The Jews probably got the Canaanites, the Phoenicians, the Syrians, the Babylonians, and the Greeks wrong. Flawed understanding and incomplete communication, this is the stuff of history – and of drama.


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