Friday, June 24, 2011

The Martyrology on Nero and the Christians

As I have noted countless times, the Roman Martyrology is a great way to keep in contact with the early Roman martyrs and it reminds us of what our early Christian ancestors went through for the Faith. For the entry for June 24th we are reminded of this particularly famous and gruesome episode under the cruel Emperor, Nero -- an emperor whose cruelty is commented on thoroughly by Suetonius in his Lives of the Caesars.

At Rome, in the time of Nero, the commemoration of many holy martyrs. Being falsely accused of having set fire to the city, they were cruelly put to death in various manners by the emperor's order. Some were covered with the skins of wild beasts and torn to pieces by dogs, other were fastened to crosses, others again were delivered to the flames to serve as torches in the night. All these were disciples of the apostles, and the first fruits of the martyrs which the Roman Church, a field so fertile in martyrs, offered to God even before the death of the Apostles.

The Torches of Nero, by Henryk Siemiradzki

As we have noted before, the Roman orator and historian Tacitus also speaks of the persecution and martyrdom of some of the Christians in the time of Nero within the context of the great fire of Rome. Tacitus picks up on Nero's machinations to deal with the political fallout from this event:

Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace... an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. 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.

Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the circus, while he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer or stood aloft on a car. Hence, even for criminals who deserved extreme and exemplary punishment, there arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but to glut one man's cruelty, that they were being destroyed.

Annals, 15.44

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