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aloof from the common amusements and vices, was enough to arouse their ill-will and suspicion. Priests and artisans who had a pecuniary interest in heathenism sought to magnify this prejudice. So the most abominable slanders were circulated against the Christians. Their isolation was attributed to misanthropy. They were stigmatized as haters of mankind. Odium humani generis was a standing charge against them. As they had no temples or images, they were reprobated as atheists. The seclusion which they naturally sought for their love-feasts and celebrations of the Lord's Supper was declared to be a covering for the most hideous crimes. The report was fostered, that at such gatherings they were accustomed to bind themselves into a criminal league by making a feast upon a slaughtered child, and then to give themselves up to the most shameless indulgence. Such monstrous fabrications could not, of course, preserve credit a great length of time among the more intelligent; but with the unthinking populace they served repeatedly as means of exciting to hatred and violence. The same class were ready, also, upon the instant, to lay every public calamity to the charge of the Christians. “They think,” says Tertullian, “the Christians the cause of every public disaster, of every affliction with which the people are visited. If the Tiber rises as high as the city walls, if the Nile does not send its waters up over the fields, if the heavens give no rain, if there is an earthquake, if there is a famine or pestilence, straightway the cry is, “Away with the Christians to the lion!'"1 Even the more enlightened of the heathen shared in this superstitious prejudice, especially from the time of Marcus Aurelius, when the prospects of the Empire and heathen fanaticism assumed together a darker tinge. The philosopher Porphyry was not above imputing the continued ravages of a pestilence to the presence of the Christians, so obnoxious in his view were they to the gods.
1 Apol., xl. Compare Ad Nationes, i. 9.
Since the Christians were, at that time, confounded with the Jews, they no doubt suffered from the action of Claudius, in the year 53, by which many Jews were driven from Rome. Perhaps the cause of the expulsion was the intemperate opposition of the Jews to those who had embraced Christianity. “The Emperor Claudius," says Suetonius, “drove the Jews from Rome, because, excited by Chrestus, they kept up a continual uproar.”This language sounds very much like a mistaken interpretation of a dispute about Christus. The heathen, we are informed by Tertullian, frequently fell into the error of putting Chrestus in place of Christus.?
Still, the first decisive persecution is properly referred to Nero's reign. “Nero,” says Tertullian, “was the first who assailed, with the imperial sword, the Christian sect."3 His tyranny prepared the flaming portal through which the Christians entered upon the long and painful ordeal. In the month of July, in the year 64, a fire broke out in Rome which raged (with only a brief interval of cessation at the end of the sixth day) for nine days. The calamity was of appalling dimensions. A writer, whose youthful mind must have been deeply stirred by the news, if not by the sight itself, of the conflagration, thus describes its destructive sweep:
1 Lives of the Cæsars, Claudius, xxv. 3 Apol., v. Compare Scorpiace, xv.
2 Apol., iii.; Ad Nationes, i. 3. 1 Tacitus, Annal., xv. 40. 2 Tacitus, Annal., xv. 39.
“Of the fourteen sections into which Rome is divided, four were still standing entire, three were levelled with the ground, and in the seven others there remained but a few remnants of houses, shattered and half-consumed.” 1 Nero himself was suspected of having been the willing cause of the awful calamity. Popular rumor represented that the imperial actor gorged his insane appetite for the theatrical with the spectacle of the burning city, delighted to see therein a reproduction of ancient tragedy, and even singing on the stage of his private theatre the “Destruction of Troy,” at the very time that the flames were surging over homes and temples. As the days passed, the murmurings grew loud and threatening. Nero found that even the lavish bounties which he bestowed upon the homeless multitudes were of no avail to turn aside accusation. A more effective expedient must be employed. Such an expedient was found in the sacrifice of the Christians. The hatred in which they were held would make it easy to fasten suspicion upon them; and, even if the crime of firing the city could not be proved against them, popular wrath could be satiated by the sight of their torments. That this was the motive at the basis of the Neronian persecution, is explicitly stated by Tacitus, who, while he shows his contempt for the Christians and his utter ignorance of their real character, indicates his belief that the charge connecting them with the conflagration of Rome was a mere pretence, a lying expedient of the Emperor. “ Nero,” he says, “ to suppress the rumor against himself, pretended that the persons commonly called Christians, who were hated for their enormities, were guilty;
and he punished them with exquisite tortures. First those were seized who confessed [that they were Christians]; then on their information a great multitude were convicted, not so much of burning the city, as of hating the human race. And in their deaths
. they were made the subjects of sport, being covered with the hides of wild beasts and worried to death by dogs, or affixed to crosses, or set on fire and made to serve as nocturnal lights when day had departed. Nero offered his own gardens for that spectacle, and exhibited a circensian game, mingling with the common people in the habit of a charioteer, or standing in his chariot. Hence, a feeling of compassion arose toward the victims, though guilty and deserving the heaviest penalties, since they seemed to be cut off not so much for the public good as to gratify the cruelty of one man.”1 Incidental references to the barbarous spectacle are found also in the satires of Juvenal.2
The Neronian persecution seems to have been but a brief outbreak of savagery. So far as urged on by the Emperor, it was probably confined to Rome. Still, it could hardly be otherwise than that the enemies of the new religion in other places would take courage from the imperial example, and be made more forward to vent their spite against the hated sect. It is possible that the murderers of the faithful martyr Antipas (Rev. ii. 13) received an incentive from the bloody carnival at Rome. However received by the heathen, the news of the Neronian persecution produced everywhere profound emotions in the breasts of Christians.
Nero appeared to them as the embodiment of the spirit of 1 Annal., xv. 44.
2 i. 155, viii. 235.
Antichrist. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that in the subsequent history the belief came to the surface that he was again to make war upon the saints, being that very agent of Satan who was to afflict the Church on the eve of the glorious coming of Christ. Domitian (81-96), “a man,” to use Tertullian's
a phrase, "of Nero's type in cruelty,” was the second to raise a persecution against the Christians. The same suspicion and covetousness which led him to visit exile and confiscation of property upon numbers of the heathen nobility urged him to like injustice against the Christians. His own cousin, Flavius Clemens, a man of consular rank, was executed, on the ground, as is supposed, of his Christian profession ; and Domitilla, the wife of Clemens, was banished. According to Hegesippus, some grandchildren of Judas, the brother of the Lord, were summoned before the tyrant, who was apprehensive that they might venture to set up royal claims, as being of the Davidic lineage. Their poverty,
1 Heathen thought went before Christian in the notion of Nero's re-appearance. For many years the rumor had place among the people that he was not really dead, and at the opportune moment would appear and reinstate himself in the rule of the Empire. This expectation found expression in the Sibylline verses. Döllinger claims that a Jewish rather than a Christian hand recorded it here; that no earlier Christian writer than Commodianus, in the middle of the third century, refers to it, and that it was brought to his notice by the Sibylline books (First Age of the Church). Lactantius, who says that it was held by some persons of extravagant fancy, connects it with these books (De Mort. Persecut., ii.). Augustine indicates a new phase of belief on the subject, since he speaks of those who imagined that Nero was to re-appear in virtue of a resurrection from the dead (De Civ. Dei, xx. 19). For himself he found no warrant for a re-appearance of the tyrant, either as miraculously preserved or as raised to life.
2 Euseb., iii. 17.