Wednesday, July 01, 2015

A Class of Men Loathed for Their Vices

Yesterday was the Feast of the Protomartyrs of Rome, so here's a description of them from a non-Christian source, Tacitus (Annals 15.44):

But neither human help, nor imperial munificence, nor all the modes of placating Heaven, could stifle scandal or dispel the belief that the fire had taken place by order. Therefore, to scotch the rumour, Nero substituted as culprits, and punished with the utmost refinements of cruelty, a class of men, loathed for their vices, whom the crowd styled Christians.

Christus, the founder of the name, had undergone the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius, by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilatus, and the pernicious superstition was checked for a moment, only to break out once more, not merely in Judaea, the home of the disease, but in the capital itself, where all things horrible or shameful in the world collect and find a vogue. First, then, the confessed members of the sect were arrested; next, on their disclosures, vast numbers were convicted, not so much on the count of arson as for hatred of the human race.

And derision accompanied their end: they were covered with wild beasts' skins and torn to death by dogs; or they were fastened on crosses, and, when daylight failed were burned to serve as lamps by night. Nero had offered his Gardens for the spectacle, and gave an exhibition in his Circus, mixing with the crowd in the habit of a charioteer, or mounted on his car. Hence, in spite of a guilt which had earned the most exemplary punishment, there arose a sentiment of pity, due to the impression that they were being sacrificed not for the welfare of the state but to the ferocity of a single man.

A major fire, lasting for six days, had devastated the city of Rome; toward the end of the conflagration, a second fire broke out suddenly and unexpectedly. (This is the same fire that led to the story that 'Nero fiddled while Rome burned'.) And the rumor went around, and would not be squelched, that the Emperor Nero had actually started the second fire himself to make sure that the parts of the city he wanted to rebuild would have to be rebuilt. And even the Romans, who had no reason to be sympathetic with the Christians in general, had difficulty seeing the large-scale executions as anything other than an attempted scapegoating and distraction.

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