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July 19 Great Fire of Rome and the death of Peter & Paul

On the 17th of July in the year 63 a Great Fire broke among the shops lining the Circus Maximus, Rome’s chariot stadium. It seemed as thought it was planned and started by the emperor Nero who tried to deflect blame from himself onto Jews and Christians This soon became a full scale persecution of Christians and lead to the execution of both Peter and Paul.


The Roman historian Publius Cornelius Tacitus is widely regarded as one of the greatest Roman historians by modern scholars. He is particularly admired for his penetrating insights into the psychology of power politics. His two major works—the Annals and the Histories examine the reigns of the emperors Tiberius, Claudius, Nero, and his now considered a chief source next to the Bible and the works of Josephus for providing significant and independent extra-Biblical account of the life and crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. According to Tacitus, when Nero was blamed for the devastating fire, in order to scotch the rumour he “ substituted as culprits a class of men whom the crowd style Christians…. Vast numbers were convicted…. Derision accompanied their end; they were torn to death by dogs or they were fastened on crossed and when daylight faded they were burned to serve as lamps by night’

It was at the high point of the Roman Empire, spanning a cosmopolitan world, and the Pax Romana that the empire bought, meant that myriads of people mingled in a way that had never been possible. Julius Caesar had begun the cult of emperor worship, building on a tradition of Roman ancestor veneration. This increased loyalty to the central figure in the empire. The Loyalty test, was if you were prepared to sacrifice to the Emperor. So Christian refusal to take part in this was seen as angering the God’s, so they were ripe to be scapegoated as Rene Girard would describe (pod of June 27) . For Christians, the title Kyrios, or Lord, was not the emperors but a name to be reserved only to God and Christ. In this climate, Tacitus said ‘ Christians were convicted. Not so much for the crime of arson, as for hatred of mankind. Power, prestige and money were involved in pagan ritual, and an economic system relied on making animal sacrifices, not just to the priest who performed the sacrifices, but spreading even to stone cutters who would chisel images of idols.

Nero was away from Rome, when the fire broke out but returned to the city and took measures to bring in food supplies and open gardens and public buildings to accommodate refugees. The population had fled first to areas unaffected by the fire and then to the open fields and rural roads outside the city. Looters and arsonists were reported to have spread the flames by throwing torches and some groups responsible for this and stopping those from fighting the fire were reported to have claimed they were under orders to do so. The fire stopped after six days of continuous burning. However, it soon reignited and burned for another three days. Of Rome's 14 districts, only 4 completely escaped damage. Conveniently the fire destroyed the portion of the Forum where the Roman senators lived and worked and accusations of Nero having started the fire were given credence by his quickness to rebuild burned neighbourhoods in the Greek style and to launch construction of his new palace. It is still a dominant theory of historians, that Nero was motivated to destroy the city so he would be able to bypass the senate and rebuild Rome in his image

Three months after the fire was the "dies imperii" exactly ten years after Nero ascended to the throne, this is when early church tradition says that Peter died by crucifixion at Vatican Hill, head downwards. This is where the Basilica of Saint Peter was later built, (see pod of Apr 18).Paul’s death is more difficult to pinpoint and is believed to have occurred after the Great Fire of Rome in July 64, but before the last year of Nero's reign, in 68. While being held in custody in Caesarea, Paul had appealed to have his court case heard by Caesar himself, as was his right as a Roman citizen as recorded in Acts 25. There is no actual record of this in the Bible but later, when writing to the Philippians from Rome, Paul wrote “All the saints greet you, especially those of Caesar’s household” It seems he had made friends with those in the household of Caesar while waiting for his case to be heard. Nero’s second wife Poppea, is described by Josephus as a worshipper of the true God and was probably favourably disposed to Christians. About 200 years later, Eusebius recorded that “after defending himself successfully, it is currently reported that the Apostle again went forth to proclaim the Gospel, and afterwards came to Rome a second time, and was martyred under Nero.” He was put to death by decapitation at Rome. This would fit in with the narrative of a growing momentum to scapegoat


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