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Nero and the Christians

A Most Merry and Illustrated History of
Nero and His Most Troublesome Minority Group


Everyone, that's everyone, knows that the long history of persecution against the Christians began with Nero. As we've seen in the films like Quo Vadis, Nero blamed the Christians for starting a fire that burned up the city of Rome. He then ordered the Christians to the Colosseum and threw them to the lions. But because of the courage of the Christians in the face of death, the Roman people turned against Nero, and learning that Galba had been declared Emperor, the sniveling whining Emperor was forced to flee Rome and finally committed suicide. As he stabbed himself he cried repeatedly, "Qualis artifex pereo!" or "What an artist dies in me!"

Weeeeellllll, like so much we see on television, in film, or read on the the Fount of All Knowledge, this traditional scenario is not, in fact, quite correct. For one thing, the Colosseum wasn't built at that time. Yes, there were various amphitheaters around, but they were often ramshackle structures made of wood. A sturdy yet old stone amphitheater was about 200 miles south in Pompeii, but in Rome the most majestic arena where Christians were dispatched was the Circus Maximus - the huge track normally used for chariot racing. But wherever it happened, Christians weren't just thrown to the lions, but also to bears, dogs, leopards, but other beasts. Nero also crucified them, covered them with pitch, and set them on fire. Yes, when Nero wanted to get tough on crime, he didn't mess around.

Nero, though, was not the first emperor to cause trouble for the Christians, and this has been reflected in other Hollywood movies. For instance, in movies like The Robe and Demetrius and the Gladiators, we learn it was the mad Caligula, who first decided to wipe out that pesky superstitio that was creeping into Roman family values. But we learn his successor, the Emperor Claudius rescued the Christians, and at the end of Demetrius, Claudius says that Christians have nothing to fear from him as long as they commit no acts of disloyalty from the state.

As far as what really happened, there's a bit of a switch. The Roman Historian, Suetonius, who wrote about eighty years after Caligula, said it was Claudius who had troubles with the followers of a Jewish leader (that was his description) named "Chrestus". Now Suetonius's history agrees pretty well with what the account found in Acts - a particularly valuable book of the Bible as it is for the most part straightforward history. There in Chapter 8, Verse 2 we read that when Paul learned "Claudius having directed all the Jews to depart out of Rome, he [Paul] came to them." What we see, then, is that both Suetonius and Acts agree that at the time of Claudius - 41 - 54 C. E., the Romans were not yet distinguishing Christianity from Judaism and that they had not yet got to the point of throwing Christians to the lions just for being Christians. If minority groups got troublesome then the Roman's just booted them out, much like Richard the Lionhearted did in London when he wanted the money of the Jewish businesses to finance his Crusade.

But still, we have to admit that historically the First Big Baddie of the Christians was indeed Nero. But just who was this emperor that has since become the most evil Roman in history? And does he deserve all the bad press Hollywood heaped on his head? Well, for those who are interested in the answer (but we make no promises), read on!

Nero Checks In

The emperor arrives

According to Suetonius, Nero was born at sunrise on the eighteenth day before the Kalends of January in the first year of the reign of the Emperor Gaius Caesar Germanicus, or as we know him, Caligula. Corrected for the Julian calendar, the Gregorian calendar, and throwing in the uncertainty that we don't know exactly how long the months were in ancient Rome or whether we should count the days inclusively or exclusively, December 15, 37 CE is pretty close in our modern reckoning to Nero's birthday.

Nero was not only born in Caligula's reign, but his mom, Agrippina Minor - better known to us as Agripplina the Younger - was the second sister of that murderous and possibly crazy ruler. At age thirteen she had been married to Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus, who had been consul under Tiberius in 32 C. E.

On the surface it was what the Romans called a good marriage. Domitius was a powerful man who had sided with Augustus over Mark Antony, and all-in-all, he was a distinctively unpleasant man who anticipated the modern CEO by cheating everyone he knew and stealing anything he could. Once he ran down a young child in his chariot just for the heck of it - something even a modern CEO would never do unless it would increase his bonuses. Obviously the household of the Ahenobarbi wasn't a nice or nurturing place for a young teenager.

Suetonius tells us that immediately after Nero's birth, the rays of the rising sun touched the future emperor. Naturally this was a favorable omen. However, we also read there were a lot of signs and omens which foreshadowed that the kid would grow up to be a jerk. So Suetonius shows us how to make accurate predictions. Say things that are vague or contradictory, then no matter what happens you can claim you were right. But it's Tacitus, who is usually the more reliable of Rome's historians, that shows an even better way to predict the future. Make sure that when your write, the event has already happened.

Tacitus, in his (fragmented) account of Nero's life, said that Agrippina had been told by priests that her son would grow up to be emperor, but that he would kill her. To this she responded, "Let him kill me, then, provided he rules!" Like all after-the-fact predictions we can dismiss the story as hogwash, bullshine, and poppycock. Instead, if you look at what Agrippina really did, it's clear she actually expected to be a full fledged co-ruler with her son, and indeed, wanted to be the real power that ruled. But that came later. When Nero was born, neither Agrippina or her husband thought their son would grow up to be emperor.

When Nero was three years old, the best thing possible happened. That is, his dad died. Then things got worse. Caligula banished Agrippina to an island. No one really knows what Caligula had against his sister. Maybe he was just nuts, and he thought that she was trying to do him in. Of course, maybe Caligula was not nuts, and Agrippina really was trying to do him in. By his fourth year Caligula's behavior had become increasingly alarming to many of his family and his former friends. There had been a number of people hoping for a change in management, and Agrippina may have been part of the planning committee. In any case, after he shipped his sister off, Caligula kept sending her letters hinting that before long he would really take care of her. But within the year the emperor and his family had been assassinated, and the new emperor, Claudius, freed Agrippina.

Claudius was engaged six times and was married four. His third spouse was Valeria Messalina. Now at the end of the movie, The Robe, Messalina, despite a dalliance with a back-slidden Victor Mature, vowed faithfulness to her husband and the reign of Claudius continues in harmony with the Christians. This depiction, we have to say, is not only not quite correct, but it couldn't be further from the truth.

When Messalina married Claudius, she was in her twenties, and he in his forties. Claudius also spent a lot of time eating too much, drinking too much, and not paying attention to his young wife. Feeling neglected, Messalina found some solace in boyfriends who were closer to her age and shared her interests. And her main interest, like many twenty-something rich girls, were hanging out and partying with her friends. In her case, Messalina's main squeeze was a handsome hunk of a senator named Gaius Silius.

We don't how much of what Tacitus and Suetonius wrote was actually correct, but if it was, Messalina and Silius had really swinging parties. Once when Claudius was away at the port city of Ostia, Messalina married Silius. That was a wee bit of a problem since if you were married to the emperor, you really weren't supposed to marry someone else. The marriage may have been just a party stunt, but when Claudius got back you can guess what he did when he found out.

But you'd be wrong. Actually, Claudius didn't do much. When he heard the news that Messalina and Silius were hitched, he seemed befuddled. So his freedmen, like the good managers they were and who for the most part hated Messalina, made the decisions for their boss. They killed Messalina and Silius, and Claudius soon married Agrippina. At that time, Nero was ten years old.

Suddenly, Agrippina saw her son was a very strong candidate to be the next emperor. But Nero was a mama's boy, more interested in poetry, playing the lyre, and fantasizing about being a chariot racer. So when he got to be emperor, Agrippina knew who would have to really be in charge. Details of Agrippina's machinations are lacking, but by the time Nero was sixteen, Claudius had designated Nero as his heir, by-passing Britannicus, his son by Messalina.

The story from the sources is that Agrippina then killed Claudius by poison, either dosed onto a plate of mushrooms or put on a feather used as an emetic after the gluttonous emperor ate the mushrooms. You often hear these stories told on TV documentaries, although the scholarly consensus seems to be to reject them. At sixty-three, Claudius was old for a Roman, did not have a healthy lifestyle, and could easily have died of natural causes.

Nero Takes Charge

So Nero became the first celebrity politician with all the attributes necessary for political success - nice hairdo, glamorous spouse(s), hot babe girlfriends, and a penchant for getting on stage with famous actors and musicians. So the next time you see a politician who jams or goes on Saturday Night Live, remember this all started with Nero.

The Roman equivalent of SNL

Nero certainly did have his negative side. He went through multiple wives not unlike like our own favorite family valued politicians and indulged in wild and crazy orgies . Before his reign was over, he had killed sundry members of his family, including his own mother, two of his glamorous spouses, a number of Roman senators, generals, the famous poet Lucan, and his teacher, Seneca. And of course the point of this story is that he also killed a lot of Christians. But unlike our own politicians Nero did not fiddle while Rome burned.

Despite his obvious drawbacks, Nero was capable of surprisingly good things. When a huge earthquake hit Pompeii in 63 CE (sixteen years before the famous eruption of Vesuvius), he gave assistance to the homeless and paid expenditures out of his own personal income. During the Great Fire of Rome - a year later - he opened his own private estates and gardens for the refugees. As with the Pompeii earthquake, he assumed the cost out of his own pocket, that is, he would have if togas had have had pockets. But he did pay for the emergency.

But on the other hand we are talking about Nero, and if you were emperor you didn't have to be - as the saying goes - as busy as you needed to be, but only as busy as you wanted to be. One of his favorite pastimes was he and his buddies would go out at night, beating up people and robbing them. Naturally when the victims saw that one of the muggers was the emperor, they didn't dare fight back. One senator did resist, and only belatedly realized he was fighting the emperor. When he got back home, he committed suicide.

Nero also found family life not to his liking and when he got tired of his first wife, Claudia Octavia, he trumped up an adultery charge, exiled her, and then had her killed. He liked his second wife, Poppaea Sabina, well enough, and she was reported to have gloated over the head of Octavia. But one night Nero came home late from a day at the races and the pregnant Sabina began to berate him for his thoughtlessness of leaving her at home alone. Nero started kicking her in the stomach and injured her so severely she died. He did, though, feel pretty bad about it.

Glamorous spouse(s)

Nero's non-regal behavior is easier to understand once you realized he never really wanted to be emperor. He would have preferred to be a singer, an actor, and a chariot racer. Now that doesn't mean he didn't find being emperor convenient. After all, if you were a contestant with - as a modern historian put it - 28 legions at your command, you were guaranteed to win first prize each and every time. You didn't even need to finish a contest - or even enter it. But being an actor or sports star lay at the foundation of Nero's later problems, although this seems strange to us.

Unlike today when people virtually salaam to the backsides of actors and athletes, in Rome such professionals were known as infamia. If you were an infamis, you were among the lowest class in a multi-class society. That doesn't mean that infamia as individuals couldn't be admired for their ability. But as a class, they were considered disreputable.

How was it possible that you could idolize an actor or sports figure and consider them scum? Well, many actors and athletes were slaves or freed slaves, and so always carried a bit of a taint. So for Nero to appear on stage or in the circus, he was placing himself at the lowest of the Roman status grades.

Nothing better illustrates how the better classes of Romans regarded actors and althletes than to read what a soldier, Subrius Flavus, said after he was found plotting against Nero. When Flavus was brought before the emperor, Nero asked him why he had turned against his emperor. Flavus replied that no one had loved Nero more that he had. But he began to hate Nero when Nero became the murderer of his mother, an arsonist, and - this is what the soldier said - "an actor and a charioteer". So from a Roman standpoint, being an actor and charioteer were being in the same class as common criminals.

Nero won first prize.

That Nero was an arsonist tends to be doubted by modern scholars. But everyone does agree that Nero was an actor and charioteer - and that he murdered his mother.

But why did Nero killed Agrippina? Well, there were plenty of reasons. For one thing, even though he was married to Octavia, he had a girlfriend, named Claudia Acte. It was by no means uncommon for good married Roman men to have girlfriends, but for some reason Agrippina couldn't stand Acte. Agrippina should have just minded her own business since due to Acte's low status she could never have married Nero anyway. But Agrippina was really irritated at the dalliance and kept razzing her son about his infatuation, mocking Acte as "my daughter-in-law, the maid." It's never a good idea to razz someone about his girlfriend, particularly if the fellow in question is a capable of murdering thousands of people.

In addition to harping about Acte, Agrippina was keeping Nero from his other passions: singing, acting, and chariot racing. Now it was OK for Roman aristocrats to demonstrate artistic and athletic skill in private, but Nero wanted to perform with professionals. Agrippina, as long as she was around, was not going to permit any such nonsense. She certainly had other plans than to let her feckless star-struck son appear on Rome Got Talent. But none of these reasons were really enough for Nero to go kill a parent, which was one of the most heinous crimes in the Roman eyes.

In Rome women were forbidden by law from participating in politics, so women who wanted to have some influence had to work behind the scenes. But whoever was officially in charge, Agrippina certainly wanted to be really in charge. She wasn't very subtle about her plans either. Although she had her portrait put on Roman coins, this wasn't without precedent and many Roman women had been so honored. On the other hand, she ordered the senate to come to the palace for their debates so she could listen in (discretely hidden behind a curtain). Once when a delegation from another country was visiting, she began to walk to the throne so she could sit beside her son. That would have created a scandal, but Seneca whispered to Nero that he should go down and greet his mother before she made it up the dais.

Despite her aspirations, Agrippina began to feel that her goal to be empress de facto was being frustrated, and Nero increasingly began putting her into the background. Agrippina, though, was still his mother, and she began (somewhat unwisely) to hint that "what she had done, could be undone." In other words, it was her machinations that got Nero the emperor's job, and she could just as easily find someone else. The "someone else" was clearly, Claudius's natural son and her stepson, Britannicus.

We can see, then, that although Nero's theatrical and athletic aspirations were certainly contributory causes, the immediate reason of his rather drastic actions was certainly his fear Agrippina would replace him with Britannicus. Oh, he could have banished her, but he would have to think up some charge. Furthermore, banished people had a tendency to return and continue to cause trouble.

So Nero adapted a two part but simple and effective strategy. First you kill Britannicus but make it look like an accident. Then when that's done, you kill Agrippina and make that look like an accident. Nothing simpler.

To accomplish Part 1, Nero poisoned Britannicus at a banquet. As his half brother expired the floor, Nero kept eating and dismissed Britannicus's writhings and gasps as having an epileptic fit, shaking his head sadly when Britannicus succummed. Now for Part 2.

Nero liked to spend a lot of time at Naples, which had an elegant Greek air to it, and in fact, as the name Neapolis shows, had been a Greek colony. Naturally Agrippina would come along, but they stayed at different palaces, Nero at Baiae, near the northernmost edge of the bay, and Agrippina at Misenum, about a mile or so south at the end of the penninsula.

In the days before television and video games, you spent your leisure time what was called "entertaining". That is you invited friends over for dinner and conversation. Rich people also would have singers and performers, but most of an evening would be eating, drinking, and enjoying yourself.

So Nero asked his mom and her attendants over for an evening and naturally he sent a boat over. But for the return trip he had a specially designed boat that would collapse once it got offshore. Well, the boat did collapse, but as a "rescue" team came out, one of her servants - anticipating the famous scene in Spartacus - shouted that she was Agrippina. The servant was immediately cut down, and the real Agrippina swam to shore.

Nero soon received a note from Agrippina that she had survived the "accident" and he shouldn't worry about her. But don't bother to visit, she said, as she needed rest. Of course, Nero realized his mother now knew what was up and was simply planning her countermove. Panicking, Nero called in his tutor, Seneca, and the captain of the Praetorian guard, Sextus Afranius Burrus. Neither man had been privy to the actual plot, but Burrus, said enough of these fancy plans. The tried and true method always worked best. So he sent over a group of soldiers who stabbed Agrippina to death. Nero was finally in charge.

The Great Fire

Nero didn't fiddle.

Out from under the thumb of his domineering mother, Nero figured he could settle down for a nice long reign where he could sing, act, and race chariots. He spent a full year in Greece, making the rounds of all the competitions. He won them all naturally, and all seemed well.

Then on the night of July 18 or early morning of July 19 in 64 C. E., a fire started near the Circus Maximus in Rome. It raged for a total of nine days. And no, Nero did not fiddle while the city burned. For one thing, the fiddle hadn't been invented. But neither did he play the lyre. Instead he responded to the emergency very responsibly. We mentioned that Nero opened up his own private property to shelter those left homeless and assumed the expense from his own assets. Good luck today if you ask a modern politician to use his own money for disaster relief. But back then it was de rigeur.

But after a good start in the field of public relations, Nero really screwed up. Once the fire was out, he started building a massive palace on a large part of the burned out areas. The palace, called the Golden House (the Domus Aurea), was a massive sprawling complex which included a man-made lake where the Colosseum is today. There were also fancy buildings, gardens, and walkways. Naturally the people who had lived there before couldn't go back and rebuild. Once more anticipating the modern politician (i. e., increasingly being out of touch with the average citizen), Nero exclaimed that at last he was beginning to be housed like a human being. It's no surprise, then, that some people began to murmur that Nero was glad the city had burned down, and inevitably, that Nero had started the fire himself.

We know what Nero did then. He said it was the Christians that started the fire, those malcontents who believed in what the Romans came to see as a depraved and excessive superstition (superstitio prava et immodica).

Although at least one modern scholar thinks a group of rogue Christians may have indeed been responsible, most historians reject Nero's claim. But it made sense to the Romans. After all, Christians practiced (according to Tacitus) a "baleful superstition" and "harbored hatred for the human race". To us, naturally, such sentiments seem like a hatred based on ignorance, but the Romans saw things differently.

We need to keep in mind that at this point Christians were not arrested for being Christians, and strictly speaking Nero was not rounding up Christians for their beliefs. He was charging them with the specific crime of arson, which then, as now, is one of the worst crimes you can commit. In the United States, sentences of 20 to 30 years are common. In Rome, you were burned alive.

So just what made Christians such a believable target for blame? Now if you delve into the records, you'll find Romans did not - that's did not - have any real idea of what Christianity was about. And like many people who keep to themselves and are - well, "different" - Christians were considered by the average Roman to be weirdos, whackos, and oddballs. Practitioners of mainstream Roman religions looked on Christianity like mainstream people today do for what we call cults. Christians, Romans heard, had wild and crazy orgies, drank blood, and ate babies rolled in flour. Not nice people.

What is even more odd is how long the Romans remained in the dark about Christian religious practices. It wasn't until 112 CE - nearly 50 years after Nero's time - that we have the first surviving account of a trial of Christians written by someone who was actually there. And what we read is very interesting.

The writer in this case was also the judge, Pliny the Younger. The Emperor Marcus Ulpius Nerva Traianus Augustus (usually called by the more pithy name of Trajan) had appointed Pliny to be the governor of Bythynia, the region of northern Turkey along the Black Sea. The province had become beset with all sorts of problems, and Pliny had a reputation of being an honest and intelligent civil servant and an expert in finance (many of the problems in Bythinia were monetary). So Trajan figured Pliny was the one who could straighten things out.

But it wasn't just money problems that Pliny found. He rode into one town (we don't know exactly where), and he found that worship of the Roman gods had nearly ceased. The fact that the temples and shrines were being neglected naturally upset the more pious of the Romans who also tended to be of the uppercrust. But what really irritated the more traditional citizens was that the merchants who made a living by selling the meat from the sacrificed animals weren't making any money. Now impiety is one thing, but mucking up the economy is something else. So the citizens asked Pliny to take care of the matter and they told him a group of people called Christiani were causing all the trouble.

Up to that time Pliny had never had anything to do with Christians. He had heard of them, yes, but even though he was one of the most famous lawyers in Rome, he had never even been present at a trial of Christians - and we're talking more than a century after the birth of Christ.

His immediate concern was to how to placate the irate citizens. Could he punish Christians just for being Christians? Or did they have to commit actual crimes first? As a Roman magistrate, Pliny had wide authority to decide what was illegal, but as a man of caution, Pliny wrote Trajan and asked what he should do.

To modern audiences who are used to the sword and sandal movies with rabid crowds tossing Christians to the lions, crucifying them, and choppin them up, Trajan's response comes a surprise. First, he said Pliny should not - that's should not - seek Christians out for persecution (conquirendi non sunt). Also if any accusations were made anonymously, they should be ignored. But then he went on to say that if Pliny did find Christians, then they must be "punished" (puniendi sunt). So Trajan gave us what is the first "don't ask-don't tell" policy in history.

On the other hand, Trajan still didn't clarify what Christians were being punished for. Even calling for them to be punished for anything was an anomaly. Normally, Romans did not persecute non-mainstream religions, certainly not for what we call doctrinal issues. They tolerated many different beliefs and permitted many types of worship. But if that's true, then just why were Christians being singled out?

First, we need to understand that Christianity was too new to be considered a real religion. Instead the word Romans used for Christianity was hetaeria - the actual word used by Pliny in his letter. Hetaeriae were not churches or religious groups, but social and professional clubs. A cooking club would be a hetaeria. So would a a fireman's association, and in fact, in one of Pliny's earlier letters he specifically referred to such a fireman's social club as a hetaeria.

Hetaeriae would meet periodically, sometimes in rented rooms or at someone's house. They could have dinners, shoot the bull, and generally enjoy themselves. Dues were collected and would go toward things like providing funeral expenses for their members or to help out families who found themselves on hard times. Of course, in all Roman organizations, there was likely some element of religion in the group. But religion per se was not the focus of groups that the Romans called hetaeriae.

A Hetaeria

So what, then, we ask again, was the problem? Well, the Roman officials were wary of hetaeriae. When people got together the authorities were afraid the group would not just have a good time, but they, like us, would start to trash the government. But the emperors were a suspicious lot and thought that once you started trashing the government, you would then foment sedition and even rebellion. Trajan had even issued a proclamation banning hetaeriae altogether, although it's not clear if that was empire wide or just in Bythinia.

So by beginning of the second century, just being a Christian meant you were automatically a member of a collectively banned organization. We also should remember that in Roman law, crime was an all or nothing matter. If you were not of the Roman uppercrust (who were usually treated leniently), even minor crimes - such as belonging to a banned organization - were capital offenses.

But being a member of hetaeriae wasn't the only "crime" Christians were guilty of. Upon further questioning (which included the legal requirement of torture), Pliny learned of even more dastardly deeds. In their meetings, they sang hymns to Christ "as if to a god" and promised to behave morally and charitably. After the meeting was over, they would then retire to eat food of "ordinary harmless sort". And to fit all this into their busy schedules, they met before dawn.

All right. They met in their houses, sang hymns, promised to be good people, and met before dawn. So what's wrong with that?

Well, meeting at dawn meant they met at night. And one thing emperors always opposed were nighttime meetings. In fact, meeting at night was expressly forbidden in one of the earliest written law codes of Rome, the Twelve Tables. So there you are. Christians were members of a type of group that was banned, and they met at night. Both illegal.

It was not, though, the actual - quote - "crimes" - unquote - that made Christians the real butt of Roman enmity. What really raised the Latin hackles - and what really marked them as different - was they refused to take part in public religious rituals. So they were kind of like the office oddball who never attends the company picnic or people who don't sing the national anthem at sports events. The Christians even refused to pay homage to the statue of the emperor. This abstention from the state worship, the Romans thought, put the entire state and all its inhabitants in jeopardy because if you didn't sacrifice, the gods got got angry, and when they got angry they would call down floods, famine, fire, and pestilence.

Now another strange characteristic of Roman religion is it was the outward ritual that was important. The gods didn't really care if you believed in them or not. Julius Caesar openly ridiculed Roman beliefs, and that was fine provided he took part in the rituals (in fact, Julius early on had been elected pontifex maximus or chief priest of Rome). So although in Pliny's time not participating in the rituals did not violate actual written law or imperial proclamations, refusal did violate the mos maioriam, the customs and precedents of the ancestors.

What also caused Christians problems is that most adherents of other ron-mainstream religions had no problem with showing up for the state functions. If you worshiped Isis or Mithras, you would also show up at the sacrifices to Zeus. Why, the Romans wondered, couldn't the Christians do the same.

On the other hand, there was one well established religion that prohibited its members from attending the worship of other gods and making homage before the emperor's statue. That was Judaism. Their doctrine was clear. Adherents were to have no gods before their God and there was to be no worship before graven images. So Jews would not participate in state sacrifice or make oaths before a statue of the emperor.

Still, at no time in the Roman empire was it ever illegal just to be Jewish. In fact, it was possible if you were Jewish to obtain wealth and status. Some Jews, such as Saul of Tarsus, that is, our friend Paul the Apostle, were "Hellenized". That is, they had adopted clothing of the Graeco-Roman world and some may have even gone about with the proper Roman coiffure and went about clean shaven. Paul was even born a Roman citizen and proud of it.

Now Roman law, by its nature, was very flexible, but in consequence comes off to us also arbitrary and capricious. Therefore how religious minorities fared depended on the temperament and tolerance of individual rulers and magistrates.

For instance, Augustus did not require the Jewish population to participate in state religions or sacrifice to his statue. Perhaps influenced by the Emperor's tolerance, the Jewish elders decided it was certainly not against their religion to make sacrifices to their own God on behalf of or for the well-being of the emperor.

This compromise seemed to work for most of the Emperors, even nutballs like Caligula. Once he met with a Jewish delegation from Alexandria who had been having problems with the local Hellenistic population. In one of the few contemporary eyewitness accounts of a Roman emperor in action, Caligula came off as something of a jackass, more interested in decorating his palace than arbitrating differences among his subjects. Still he decided to let the Jews of Alexandria practice their religion. But like many of Caligula's rulings, this one didn't last. Soon Caligula ordered his image to be erected in the Temple of Jerusalem which would have led to riots at best and more likely to open revolt. Fortunately, the governor of Judea put off obeying the order long enough for Caligula to be assassinated. Then he went back to Augustus's policy.

So why couldn't the emperors treat Christians as they did the Jews? Why were they called a hetaeria and not a religio. Well, to be a religio it helped if your beliefs were old. Even better was if you had sacred texts going back hundreds of years or longer (which the Jews had). For Romans old was good. But if your religion only went a generation or two back - like the Christians - you were out of luck.

In the end, then, the question as to if Christians were punished for their "crimes" or "just being Christians", we can answer with a resounding "Yes!" That is, if you were a Christian and following your beliefs, you would automatically break the laws of Rome. So proof of Christianity eventually became proof of criminality.

But Pliny still didn't know what to do. As he himself admitted, he had never - that's never - been present at a trial of Christians. Here's one of the biggest lawyers in Rome, a century after the birth of Christ and fifty years after Nero, and yet his contact with Christians was essentially zilch. So he had to wing it, and here's what he decided to do.

First, he asked the suspects if they were Christians. If they said, yes, he asked again. If they persisted in their "obstinacy" and again said yes, Pliny asked a third time, no doubt coming off as either a bit dense or at least hard of hearing. But three strikes and the Christians were out, and Pliny had then led away to execution.

Other suspects, though, denied they were Christians, even though some admitted they had once been Christians, but had given it up as much as twenty years previously. Now Pliny was in a dilemma. Were the people just saying they weren't Christians to save their lives (after all, Peter had denied he knew Christ). So Pliny had an idea.

He brought in a statue of Trajan and asked the suspects to pour some wine on the ground as an offering. If they did, they were let go. If they refused, Pliny had found his Christians.

But as we said, Pliny wasn't sure if what he was doing was the right thing. So he wrote his famous letter to Trajan asking for further advice. Trajan responded and said, yes, Pliny had done the right thing. But by then it didn't matter Pliny had already killed all the Christians in town.

But going back to Rome in 64 C. E., once Nero killed the Christians and built the Domus Aurea, he figured his problems were over. Fat chance. By concentrating on being an artist and athlete, Nero had done the one thing that was a no-no for an emperor. He completely ignored the military. He had never led an army in battle - expected of Roman politicians - and in fact, he never so much as laid eyes on an army in the field. Next, he had this pesky habit of ordering generals to commit suicide. We can guess he did that because he suspected them of disloyalty and were planning rebellion. It's likely that in some cases Nero was correct, but forcing army leaders to suicide made the innocent generals decidedly nervous.

The first serious revolt against Nero was by General Gaius Julius Vindex. Vindex argued that Nero wasn't a leader but a "harpist", and they didn't need a singer for emperor. However, Vindex's revolt wasn't successful, and when his army was defeated in 68 C. E. near Vesontio, he committed suicide. But at the start of his rebellion, Vindex had called on the aid of Servius Sulpicius Galba, who was married to one of Nero's girl friends and had been living in Spain while his wife lived in Rome. With Vindex dead, Galba now led the rebellion.

With armies rising up against the emperor, Nero decided on action. First he dressed up a bunch of girls like the legendary female warriors, the Amazons. Then he called in a bunch of senators to discuss his ideas for a new type of water organ. Finally he devised a plan of stopping the rebellions by going to the rebels, weeping before them, and then leading them in songs of his own composing.

The Senate finally decided that Nero had lost it and declared Galba was emperor. Well, Nero thought, maybe this was for the best. After all, he never wanted to be Rome's ruler, and an empire as large as Rome could find a place for an out-of-work emperor. He liked Greece, and maybe he could move there and make the rounds of the various competitions. Better yet, he could move to Alexandria and make a living as a singer.

But when he heard that he had been declared an outlaw, Nero fled with a few of his servants to a ruined villa outside of Rome. Then on June 9, 68 C. E., he learned troops were approaching, and he had a servant help stab himself in the throat. His eyes bulged from their head so much that people with him panicked, and he uttered the most famous of the not-quite-last words, "Qualis artifex pereo!". Usually translated as "What an artiste dies in me!" it can also be translated as "What an artisan I've been reduced to in my dying!" or even "As what kind of an artist do I perish?" If you don't like ambiguity, Latin is not the language for you.

Those were not, though, Nero's actual last words. As he lay dying on the ground, a soldier came in. Seeing the wounded emperor, the man placed his cloak against the wound. "Too late!" Nero gasped. "This is loyalty!"

That was the end of Nero. His old girlfriend, Acte, took over the funeral arrangements. Nero was cremated and his ashes were placed in the family tomb of the Ahenobarbi. Over the course of time eventually the tomb was destroyed, and its contents - what was left of Nero - were lost.

Just how many Christians did Nero actually kill? Later Christian writers put the numbers in the thousands. But some modern historians (particularly those who use history programs to tell of their non-refereed opinions) tend to pooh-pooh such huge numbers. It could have been a couple of hundred, perhaps, but thousands? No.

However, there's good reasons to think the thousands is the right number. Tacitus - remember that he was a Roman writer - wrote that the number of Christians convicted by Nero was a huge multitude (multitudo ingens). And if you were convicted by Nero it was a given you were also killed. You did not get probation and community service.

Admittedly a multitude is kind of a vague term. But saying a huge multitude is a couple of hundred doesn't seem to quite cut it. On the other hand Livy, an earlier Roman writer, had referred to a multitudo ingens during the Bacchanalian persecution. The number he cited was around 7000. So according to Roman and Christian accounts, the number of Nero's victims being in the thousands has credence.

But if Nero was the first big baddie of the Christians, why isn't he mentioned in the Bible? Augustus is mentioned (Luke 2:1). Tiberius is mentioned (Luke 3:1). And so is Claudius (Acts 11:28). So why isn't Nero given some notice?

Well, he just might be, although perhaps in a roundabout way. But that's another story. But a story you can read if you just click here.


Annals, Books 14 - 15 , Tacitus

The Twelve Caesars, Suetonius

Roman History: Books LXI - LXIII , Cassius Dio

Most of what we know about Nero comes from the works of Tacitus, Suetonius, and Cassius Dio, none of whom were contemporaries of Nero. All were also of the upper classes and so considered Nero's artistic aspirations to be a disgrace. Keeping who told us what can be a bit of a challenge.

It is Tacitus who tells us of the prediction that Nero would kill his mother. The wording has been variously translated, a popular one being, "Let him kill me, provided he becomes emperor!" The actual Latin is "Occidat dum imperet", literally, "Let him kill (subjunctive tense) while he rules!" Tacitus, as he often did, questioned the veracity of his sources. What the quote really tells us is that Nero's mother, like Julius Caesar, was contemptuous of religion. You can bet like mother like son.

The famous quote of Subrius Flavus - which Tacitus says is a direct quote of the unvarnished Latin of the soldier himself - is:

"Oderam te, nec quisquam tibi fidelior militum fuit dum amari meruisti. Odisse coepi postquam parricida matris et uxoris, auriga et histrio et incendiarius extitisti."

This is translated as: "I hated you, yet no one of the soldiers was more loyal to you while you deserved to be loved. I began to hate (you), after you became the parricide of your mother and wife, a charioteer and an actor and incendiary."

There have been cases where Tacitus claims he was quoting directly from a source and when the source was found in contemporary inscriptions, Tacitus was right on. So as Professor Edward Champlin has pointed out, here we have a direct quote of a member of Nero's personal guard accusing him of starting the fire of Rome. The point to note is that the other statements about Nero in this quote are true. But there are still objections to the "Nero did it" theory. For instance, if Nero wanted the area cleared for the Golden House, why did the fire start in another region of Rome altogether? So most historians still reject that Nero or the Christians started the fire.

Nero, Edward Champlin, Belknap Press (2003). A modern biography by the world's acknowledged expert on Nero. A lot of discussion which puts Nero's oddball behavior in perspective which points to Nero being a great spinmeister who gathered his support from the lower classes of Rome. Too bad the lower classs weren't in charge of the army.

Emperors of Rome, Garrett G. Fagan, (The Pennsylvania State University), The Teaching Company. DVD Course. One lecture covers Claudius and Agrippina (who is busy getting Nero ready to rule) and three of the lectures are about Nero. The lectures call on a lot of the more recent scholarship, particularly from Professor Champlin's book. The Teaching Company has many courses on wide and varied subjects taught by excellent teachers and the success of the company shows that, believe it or not, many people like learning accurate and correct information.