By Bart D. Ehrman, The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
In the 1st century, there was no empire-wide persecution of Christians, no declaration that Christianity was illegal, and no top-down effort to stamp out the movement. Indeed, that was the case for a long time to come. The first empire-wide opposition to Christians did not come until 249 CE, well over two centuries after the death of Jesus.
Narrative around Christianity
There was a popular narrative built up around Christianity over the years and centuries; it was conveyed to be a hugely successful movement from the very beginning, which was seen as a huge threat to the well-being of the pagan world in general and the Roman Empire in particular.
However, there is no evidence of any pagan author even knowing that Jesus existed until the early 2nd century. Jesus is not mentioned in any pagan writing of any kind until about 112 CE. There are no records from his own time, no writings from Pontius Pilate, no mention of his activities, no record of his trial, no death certificate, no mention of his disciples, or the early Jesus movement.
Even though the followers of Jesus were making converts at a reasonably good pace, they were still a very tiny movement until 200 CE or so. They simply weren’t seen as newsworthy, let alone a general threat. Nonetheless, the Christians eventually came to the public eye, in some places more than others.
First Official Persecution of Christians
The largest city in the empire by far was Rome, with about a million people. And there is a good reason for thinking the Christian church in Rome, within 30 years of Jesus’s death, was one of the largest in the world. They were not thousands of Christians there, but there probably were dozens, and so possibly it’s not surprising that it was there in the capital of the empire, the largest city with the largest Christian population, that we first hear of a Roman persecution of Christians that started at the top. This is the first official persecution, and it was completely unlike any of the others to come.
It is also by far the most misunderstood. This persecution happened already in the 1st century, before most of the New Testament was even written. It’s the persecution of Christians in Rome, by the emperor Nero in 64 CE. One of the most striking things about this persecution is that we do not learn about it in detail from any early Christian source, but from the writings of a Roman historian, Tacitus, whose book, The Annals of Imperial Rome, written around 115 CE, describes the events leading up to the persecution and the details of the gruesome event itself.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Triumph of Christianity. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
The Great Fire of Rome
The Annals records major events that transpired during the reigns of several of the early emperors, starting with the second emperor Tiberius, the immediate successor of Caesar Augustus. Tiberius ruled from 14 to 37 CE. That is, he was the emperor during the time of Jesus’s ministry and his death. He was also the emperor at the beginning of the Christian church. Tiberius was succeeded by Caligula, then Claudius and then Nero, who ruled from 54 to 68 CE.
Tacitus discusses in Book 15 of the Annals the Great Fire of Rome in 64 CE. This was one of the major catastrophes to hit the city of Rome in the early empire. The fire started in the Roman circus and spread quickly to surrounding neighborhoods, burning down businesses and residential areas, killing large numbers of people.
Nero was out of town when it started, but when he received word that some of his own mansions were in danger, he returned to the city. The fire raged for six days before being brought under control, but then it broke out again. In the end, 10 of the 14 districts of Rome were affected; three of them completely destroyed and seven others severely reduced to ruins.
Christians Become the Scapegoat
No one knew for certain how the fire started. Tacitus himself gives two main options and indicates that he’s not sure which it was—a pure accident or an act of arson. He suggests that if it was arson, it may have been ordered by Nero himself. But why? A rumor started up by people who had been burnt out of house and home was that the emperor had building plans for his city, which he could not implement if the city was still standing. And so according to this rumor, he arranged for the city to be burned.
Whether that is true or not, Nero himself had not done much during the fire to show his deep concern for the populace. On the contrary, according to Tacitus, as the city burned, Nero had gone on to his private stage and sung songs about the destruction of Troy during the Trojan War.
The rumors started spreading more widely, and Nero realized that he had to shift the blame off himself. So, he chose someone else to serve as a scapegoat and he landed on the idea of the Christians. Why the Christians? According to Tacitus, it was because the Christians were known already to hate the human race.
Common Questions about the Persecution of Early Christians
We first hear of a Roman persecution of Christians that started at the top in Rome itself, the capital of the empire and the largest city with the largest Christian population. This was the first official persecution, and it was completely unlike any of the others to come.
Roman historian Tacitus wrote The Annals of Imperial Rome around 115 CE.
The Great Fire of Rome in 64 CE was one of the major catastrophes to hit the city of Rome in the early empire. The fire started in the Roman circus and spread quickly to surrounding neighborhoods, killing large numbers of people. The fire raged for six days before being brought under control, but then it broke out again. In the end, 10 of the 14 districts of Rome were affected; three of them completely destroyed and seven others severely reduced to ruins.