Christian martyrs of Rome
Nero's persecution was occasioned by an early morning fire on July 19, 64. It broke out in a small shop by the Circus Maximus and spread rapidly to other regions of Rome, and raged for nine days, destroying much of the city. This was the worst in a series of fires that beset the crowded city -- more than a million people, packed tightly into apartment blocks of wooden construction, among narrow streets and alleyways. Only two areas escaped the fire; one of them, the Transtiberum region, Trastevere, across the Tiber River, had a large Jewish population.
Nero was at his seaside villa in Anzio when the blaze began, but he delayed returning to the city. They say that when he heard the news, he began composing an ode comparing Rome to the burning city of Troy (illustration above). His indifference to the suffering caused by the tragedy stirred resentment among the people. Rumors began that he himself set the fire in order to rebuild the city with his own plans.
To stop the rumors, Nero decided to blame someone else, and he chose a group of renegade Jews called Christians, who had caused trouble before, and already had a bad reputation in the city. Earlier, about the year 49, the Emperor Claudius had banished some of them from Rome for starting upheavals in the Jewish synagogues of the city with their disputes about Christ.
Nero's Raging Sword
"Nero was the first to rage with Caesar's sword against this sect," wrote the early-Christian writer, Tertullian. "To suppress the rumor," the Roman historian Tacitus says, "Nero created scapegoats. He punished with every kind of cruelty the notoriously depraved group known as Christians." Just how long the process went on and how many were killed, the Roman historian does not say.