Mysteries of the Bible

"Unanswered Questions of the Bible"

The Burning of Rome

Posted by foryourfaith on May 29, 2010

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In the early hours of July 19, AD 64, a catastrophic fire broke out in Rome; fanned by the wind, it swept through much of the city. When the fire started, the Emperor Nero hurried from his villa in Antium, 33 miles away, to direct the fire fighting. Still, the fire burned for nine days, destroying much of the city.

In spite of his apparent concern, a rumor spread that at the height of the blaze Nero sang a song about the sack to Troy – that he “fiddled” while Rome burned. Another story claimed that he himself had ordered the fire set in order to provide space in Rome for some ambitious building projects. Indeed, after the fire, Nero began to build himself a grandiose palace on some 200 acres of prime city land, much of it expropriated from the fire-devastated area.

Nero’s notorious ambition, coupled with his monstrous cruelty (he had arranged for the murder of his own mother), made such rumors credible. Still, it is unlikely that Nero started the fire. He was, after all, far from Rome when the fire broke out. Also, the moon was bright – a condition that would hardly allow such extensive arson to go undetected.

Nero made scapegoats of the Christians. The first to be interrogated implicated other Christians. Many were put to death in bizarre ways: some were dressed in animal skins, and savage dogs were set upon them; others were crucified; still others were made into human torches in Nero’s own garden. Tradition has it that in the period of persecution following the burning of Rome, the apostles Peter and Paul were put to death.

We do not know how large the Christian community was at the time of Nero’s reign (AD 54-68). But some time after Nero became emperor, Paul wrote his letter to what was then the flourishing community of Christians in Rome.

Rome was not the only place where the early Christians were persecuted, nor was Nero the only public official who persecuted them. There is abundant evidence in the New Testament and other sources that Christians suffered for their faith throughout the Roman world.

In Jerusalem, the Sanhedrin, an administrative and judicial council of the Jews, forbade Peter and John to speak in the name of Jesus (Acts 4:1-21). When they persisted they were arrested and jailed, escaped, were re-arrested and beaten. They were told not to continue teaching and were then released (5:17-42).

About AD 44, Herod Agrippa I, then ruler of Judea and other parts of Palestine under the Romans, lashed out savagely against the Christians. He had James, son of Zebedee and brother of John, killed – and then arrested Peter, who later escaped from prison miraculously (Acts 12:1-11). In his Jewish Antiquities, Flavius Josephus wrote that, around AD 62, James (the brother of Jesus) who was a leader of the church in Jerusalem, was put to death at the instigation of Ananus, the high priest.








According to tradition, Peter died by crucifixion. Yet the details of his martyrdom are actually a mystery. In the First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians, from about AD 96, Clement of Rome, one of the Apostolic Fathers, wrote: “Peter was subjected to tribulation, not once or twice but many times; it was in that way that he bore his witness, ere he left us for his well-earned place in glory.” A passage in the Gospel of John is often read as a reference to Peter’s death: Jesus said, “When you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go” (John 21:18-19). The widely held idea that Peter was crucified head down may have been invented by the author of the aprocryphal Acts of Peter, probably written in the second century.

Did Peter’s death take place in Rome? Mention of “Babylon” in 1 Peter 5:13, which is most likely a cryptic reference to Rome, is often taken to point to Peter’s presence there. He is widely believed to have died in Nero’s garden in the vicinity of the Vatican. It is here, in fact, that he is believed by many to have been buried.

In the aftermath of the persecution under Nero that followed the burning of Rome, the Christian community was badly shaken. Scholars believe that some of the New Testament books were written to encourage and support the fledgling faith. The stage was set for the more systematic and widespread persecution of Christians that followed in the next centuries, as the Christian movement grew.


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