This week in history, one thousand, nine hundred and forty-eight years ago, is recorded as the week of the great fire in Rome.
It broke out during the night of July 18, 64 AD “in the merchant area of the city… Fanned by summer winds, the flames quickly spread through the dry, wooden structures of the Imperial City. Soon the fire took on a life of its own consuming all in its path for six days and seven nights. When the conflagration finally ran its course it left seventy percent of the city in smoldering ruins” (“The Burning of Rome, 64 AD” by eyewitnesstohistory.com).
Some historians believe that the dreaded emperor Nero started the fire because he intended to build a grand new palace and city. Others refute this, claiming that he was not even in Rome at the time of the blaze.
Nevertheless, this date, so many centuries ago, is significant to Christians of every age because the fire resulted in a reign of terror unleashed against their Christian brothers, then living in Rome.
They bore the blame as the ones who had started the fire – scapegoats of a raging despot, madly driven to quell the persistent rumour that he had ordered the burning of the city!
Historian Tacitus in his work, “The Annals” written around 116 AD, reports that of a total of 14 districts in Rome only four remained intact. Three were completely razed; while the other seven were “reduced to a few scorched and mangled ruin.”
So having been accused by Nero of starting the fire the small population of Christians paid the ultimate price.
In an article titled “Early Christian Persecution” the website, allaboutfollowingjesus.org. states that “the first mass persecution occurred under Nero in A.D. 67… He had some Christians sewn up in skins of wild beasts and thrown to the dogs. Some Christians were dressed in shirts made stiff with wax, fixed to axletrees, and set on fire in his gardens, in order to illuminate them.”
Suffering in such a cruel and barbaric fashion, these Christians brethren experienced what Jesus said in John 15:18-20:
“If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first… Remember the words I spoke to you: ‘No servant is greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also” (NIV).
Yet, the Christians at Rome persisted in their belief and public confession of Christ. In fact, the article above also comments: “Rather than diminish the spirit of Christianity, this persecution increased the devotion and commitment of Christianity.”
This has always been the case with Christ’s followers. The more they are maligned and ill-treated the more they witness and increase the future population of heaven.
We must not forget this week of July 18, 64 AD, the horrible fire of Rome, and the Caesar-sponsored terrorism against Christianity – the result of Nero wanting to extinguished the flame of arsonist rumours levied at him.
But is it any wonder that these rumours have gained so much currency? This is a regrettable tale of a young man who became emperor in the year 54 AD at age 16.
The “Encyclopedia Americana” reminds us that he had his mother Agippina murdered; later, he did the same to his wife Octavia; and he forced his teacher and mentor, Seneca, to commit suicide.
It was therefore a small matter to him to persecute the Christians.
But, it’s just amazing. This same insignificant band of believers is remembered and praised for its faith and bravery, and willingness to lay in all on the line for Christ. And its initial ranks in Rome and in far-flung pockets of the Empire have swollen to numerous disciples in every corner of the globe today.
While Nero is generally remembered as one of the many despots of human history – the Caesar who, when the Senate declared him to be “enemy of the state”, fled from Rome and committed suicide in 68 AD at age 30!