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The Martyrs Under Nero
  June 24th  

    These confessors, whose number and names are known only to God, are described in the Roman Martyrology as "the first fruits with which Rome, so fruitful in that seed, had peopled heaven". It is interesting to note that the first of the Caesars to persecute Christians was Nero, perhaps the most unprincipled of them all.

    In July 64, the3 tenth year of his reign, a terrible fire devastated Rome. It began near the Great Circus, in a district of shops and booths full of inflammable goods, and quickly spread in all directions. After it had raged for six days and seven nights and had been got under by the demolition of numerous buildings, it burst forth again in the garden of Tigellinus, the perfect of the praetorian guard, and continued for three days more. By the time it had finally died down, two-thirds of Rome was a mass of smouldering ruins. On the third day of the fire Nero came from Antium to survey the scene. It is said that, clad in theatrical costume, he went to the top of the Tower of Maecenas, and to the accompaniment of his lyre recited Priam's lament over the burning of Troy. His savage delight at watching the flames gave rise to the belief that he had ordered the conflagration, or at any rate had prevented it from being extinguished.

    The belief rapidly gained ground. It was said that flaming torches were thrown into houses by mysterious individuals who declared themselves to be acting under orders. How far Nero was responsible remains a moot point to this day. In view of the numerous destructive fires which have afflicted Rome throughout the ages, it is more than likely that this, perhaps the worst of them all, was due to accident. At the time, however, suspicion was so widespread that Nero was alarmed, and sought to divert it from himself by accusing the Christians of setting fire to the city.

    Although, as we know from the historian Tacitus, no one believed them to be guilty of the crime, they were seized, exposed to the scorn and derision of the people, and put to death with the utmost cruelty. Some were sewn up in the skins of wild beasts and delivered to hungry dogs who tore them to pieces; some were crucified; others again were smeared over with wax, pitch and other combustible material, and after being impaled with sharp stakes under their chins were ignited to serve as torches. All these barbarities took place at a public nocturnal fête which Nero gave in his own gardens. They served as side-shows whilst the emperor diverted his guests with chariot races, mixing with the crowd in plebeian attire or driving himself in a chariot. Hardened though the Romans were to gladiatorial shows, the savage cruelty of these tortures aroused horror and pity in many of those who witnessed them.

Tacitus, Suetonius, Dio Cassius, Pliny the Elder, and the satirist Juvenal all make reference to the fire; but it is only Tacitus that we have a mention of Nero's attempt to fasten the outrage upon a particular sect. Tacitus definitely specifies the Christians by name, but Gibbon and others maintain that under that designation he included the Jews, because those who had adopted the teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ were not yet sufficiently numerous in Rome to be a source of alarm. This view, however, which seems only prompted by a desire to belittle the influence of Christianity, has not won many adherents, There is an excellent article on the subject in DCB., iv, pp. 24-27.

Butler's Lives of The Saints, Herbert J. Thurston, S.J. and Donald Attwater