In a hot July summer of 64 A.D., a fire broke out near the Capena Gate (the marketplace near the Circus Maximus) and spread quickly across the entire Circus, and finally it was completely out of control, the fire destroyed nearly half of Rome.
The Roman historian Tacitus records the event:
“First, the fire swept violently over the level spaces. Then it climbed the hills-but returned to ravage the lower ground again. It outstripped every counter-measure. . . Terrified, shrieking women, helpless old and young, people intent on their own safety, people unselfishly supporting invalids or waiting for them, fugitives and lingerers alike–all heightened the confusion.”
As the fire blaze out of control some citizens tried every measure to put out the flames. It is told that the citizens were stopped. Also some of the mob lit torches and threw them into the flames to feed the fire. Tacitus make an interesting note about these arsonists who had claimed “they acted under orders. Perhaps they had … or they may just have wanted to plunder unhampered.”
Nero heard the news from his Palace at Antium and rushed to Rome just in time to see the Palatine Palace in flames. His newly built mansion, the Domus Transitoria, was nothing but a pile of smoldering ashes. Nero immediately organized a team of firefighters and provided shelter for the panic stricken people who had been left homeless. The fire burned for nine days, leaving 10 out of its 14 regions in ruins, with the loss of many lives.
Nero decided that he would place the blame on scapegoats, because there was a dangerous rumor that Nero himself had ordered the fire in order to vandalize the capital city, and to free up space for his new building plans. It is recorded that later he indeed take advantage of the situation and begin planning and building his Golden House. His scapegoats were none other than the Christians, who were already being accused in one way or another within Roman pagan society. This was officially the time that the active persecution of the Christian Church began. At some point soon after it became a crime to bear the name “Christian” and the suppression of the church became state policy. This persecution would last, off and on, for almost three centuries.
Prayer and Reflection: The fire was in all likelihood used by Nero to further his own building projects, but the Christians who were blamed for it were Jewish believers in Jesus – a fact often unacknowledged in Church history. The beginnings of Christian involvement in Roman history shows the phenomena of persecution, stereotyping and victimization, tactics that Christians themselves were later to apply to the Jewish communities in their midst.
Brief overview of the events surrounding the Great Fire of Rome
Jewish Rebellion and Christian Identity, to Masada (73 CE)
Roman authorities viewed the spread of Judaism as a threat to Rome. Jewish businessmen aroused the resentment of their non-Jewish competitors. Jews were scorned for refusing to burn incense before the emperor’s statue – worse than Americans refusing to salute their flag. Jews, including the followers of Jesus, aroused suspicion by their inclination to keep to themselves. They appeared to others as haters of the world outside their own circle. They were disliked for their quarrelsome denunciations of gods other than Yahweh, and they were often the targets of mockery and violence. The emperor Claudius (who ruled in the years 41 to 54) moved to curtail the spread of Judaism in Rome. He denied Jews there the right to meet outside of their synagogues. And in 49, following a disturbance involving Jews, Claudius (as described in Acts 18:2 in the New Testament) expelled Jews from the city of Rome. But elsewhere in the empire, Claudius defended the rights and privileges that had been conferred upon Jews and other minorities, except for Druids, who were viewed as a threat to the empire’s well-being.
Following Emperor Claudius to the rule of Nero, in the year 64 persecution of followers of Jesus came with a Great Fire in Rome that raged for many days. It almost destroyed the entire city and was horrendous enough to seem like Armageddon had arrived. Historians do not know how the fire started. The Roman historian Tacitus, years later after Nero was dead, did not mind accusing Nero of starting the fire, although he had no hard evidence that Nero had. The fire may have been an accident – the overturning of one of the barbecue-like stoves (a brazier) that people used inside their homes, or by an oil lamp. But one historian, Gerhard Baudy, by the year 2002, had put together observations with which to speculate that a few Christians may have started the fire. There were Christians who equated Rome with evil and would have believed they were doing the Lord’s work by setting fire to Rome. Baudy knows of vengeful texts circulated in the poor districts of Rome predicting Rome being burned to the ground by a raging inferno. A constant theme among these Christians in Rome, according to Baudy, was that such a fire was prophesied. And Baudy speaks of some of the Christians willing to help the prophesy along by doing the Lord’s work. Rome’s great fire started on a prophetic day for these Christians: July 19, 64 CE, the day that the dog star, Sirius, rises. If the Christians did not start the fire, Baudy speculates, they may have lit additional fires to add to the conflagration to help the prophesies.
With Christians seeing the Great Fire as the beginning of the fulfillment of their expectations that the world would be destroyed by fire, reports of their joyous dancing, looks of glee and shouts of hallelujahs would have attracted suspicion. And Christians were an easy target because they were still thought of as Jews. Suspicions of arson arose not because evidence of arson had been found but because people were inclined to believe that disaster was the work of some kind of malevolence. An official investigation concluded that the fire had been started by Jewish fanatics. This put the Jewish community in Rome in danger, and Jewish leaders in Rome may have tried to avert this danger by describing to authorities the difference between themselves and the Christians. The leaders of Jews in Rome could reach the emperor, Nero, through his new wife, Sabina Poppaea. Nero learned of the separate identity of those Jews who were followers of Jesus, and he put blame on them for the fire.
Nero had some Christians executed in the usual way of executing criminals: putting them in the arena against gladiators or wild animals, or as was commonly done to those convicted of arson, having them burned to death. It was around this time that the apostles Peter and Paul vanished.