TRUMPETS sounded the fire alarm in Rome on the night of July 18, in the year 64. It seemed that the flames first broke out in the crowded section near the Great Circus and spread rapidly, driven by a strong wind to row after row of wooden houses. Sparks carried by the wind started other fires. People fled in panic. The fire roared on unchecked, continuing for six days and six nights. When it was finally brought under control, most of the city lay in ruins.
People could not believe that one small accidental fire somewhere could have caused all that damage. Some thought several fires had started at the same time. They looked about for someone to blame. Soon they began saying that Nero, the emperor, had set the fire himself. Others said that he had murdered members of his own family and the angry gods were striking back with thunderbolts from the sky.
Frightened by such talk, Nero turned suspicion away from himself by blaming the Christians. Not much was known about them, but since they were members of the poorer classes they were looked upon with suspicion. The bread and wine of their suppers, which represented the body and blood of Jesus, led many Romans to believe that the Christians were actually cannibals. There were rumors that Christians killed and ate small children at their secret meetings.
Nero’s persecution of the Christians, therefore, proved to be highly popular. The prisons were soon filled with a “great multitude” of Christians and executions and brutal tortures went on day after day in Nero’s Circus, which was located where St. Peter’s Cathedral stands today. Peter and Paul may have been executed during or shortly after this wave of persecution.
The “great multitude” that filled the prisons suggests that the Christian community in Rome was quite large. How Christianity first came to Rome is not known, but according to tradition Peter carried on missionary work there and may have spent a number of years in Rome.
At the time of Paul’s death Christian churches had been established in several of the most important crossroads of the East: Antioch, Ephesus, Corinth, and Salonica. From these busy gateways of commerce Christianity spread in all directions, but the church in Rome had one advantage over the others; it was located at the heart of the Roman Empire.
The church in Rome became more and more important as time went on, for it was aided by the empire in a number of ways. The empire had reached its peak before the beginning of the Christian era. It ruled over the entire civilized world: Spain, Gaul and the lands bordering the Mediterranean, including Egypt and her North African provinces. Caesar Augustus had set up a sound government, leaving the burden and details of local rule largely in the hands of puppet kings and appointed governors. To the people of that day the Roman Empire was the world. It was so powerful that it seemed certain to endure forever.
CHRISTIANITY SPREADS AND THE CHURCH GROWS
It provided its peoples with a long period of stable government and centuries of peaceful living. This Roman peace gave Christianity time to take route in many provinces of the empire The missionaries of Christ enjoyed the protection of Roman laws as they traveled about.
The remarkable system of roads within the empire also served to spread Christianity. Every Roman emperor took pride in adding to that system. The work continued year after year until Rome was connected by paved highways with such distant places as Byzantium, the Pillars of Hercules at the Strait of Gibraltar, the Danube and the most distant tip of northern France. Traveling by sea was also made easier and safer, for the Romans had cleared most of the pirates from the Mediterranean and built hundreds of new ships.
The empire offered the early missionaries other advantages, too. They could use the money of Rome wherever they went. Greek was the common language of the empire and there were no language barriers to overcome. The first religious writings of the Christians, including the gospels, were all written in Greek and could be used in all the provinces.
All these advantages had much to do with the rapid spread of Christianity throughout the West, but as the Christian Church grew the empire turned against it. Before the end of the first century it became unlawful to be a Christian and anyone who confessed to that faith could be punished with torture and death. The Roman Empire was encouraging its peoples to worship the emperor. In ancient times it was not uncommon for rulers to be regarded as gods. The pharaohs of Egypt had been worshiped as gods for thousands of years. Other rulers in the East had been honored in the same way, including kings of Persia and Alexander the Great of Macedonia.
Caesar Augustus and the Roman emperors who came after him were each treated as a god in turn. The mass of the people took the cult of emperor worship seriously. The most fanatic of the cult considered the Christian faith a personal insult to their god, the emperor. The Younger Pliny, a Roman governor in Asia Minor, faced a serious problem because of fanatics. In his provinces Christianity was so well established that it had brought about changes in the social life of the people and therefore caused concern among those who were not Christians. The temples were almost empty. Many who sold animals for sacrifice were suffering from lack of business. Since the Christians were blamed for this state of affairs, some of them were brought before Pliny. He sentenced them to die, but he was disturbed because none of them, so far as he could tell, had been guilty of any crime worthy of death.
After the executions, the people became excited and began a bloodthirsty campaign against the Christians. They hunted down hundreds of them and dragged them into Pliny’s court. Many were women and children. Pliny carefully questioned each one. Those who frankly admitted being Christians were sentenced to death, but Pliny did not know what to do about others who denied being Christian. He wrote about all this in a long letter to Trajan‚ the emperor and asked, “Is the mere name ‘Christian’ punishable?” If it was, should the death penalty be given to all Christians, even to those who deny they are Christian? Pliny’s letter was really an appeal for reason and justice. He hinted that mercy would help him restore peace and order to his provinces.
Emperor Trajan answered him with three lines: “It is not necessary to seek the Christians out, but whenever they are denounced and declare themselves convinced of their errors, they must be punished. However, if anyone denies that he is a Christian and proves it by paying homage to our gods, he thus obtains his pardon.”
Trajan’s reply shows that the empire was not making a determined effort to stamp out Christianity, at least not at the beginning of the second century. Christians were to be ignored officially, unless the people brought them into court and made charges against them. That was the general policy of Trajan and it was followed by the next two emperors, Hadrian and Antoninus. Marcus Aurelius, who ruled from 161 to 180, persecuted the Christians on a limited scale. The Christian martyrs of the first two centuries were small in number compared to the thousands who were victims of the general persecutions of the third and fourth centuries.
The harsh treatment of Christians prompted a number of well-educated men to write papers in their defense. These men are known as the apologists. The most famous of them was Justin, a student of philosophy, who wrote his Apology to Emperor Antoninus about 153. Like other apologists, Justin tried to prove that the Christian faith was similar in many ways to the highest and deepest ideas of philosophy. Justin suffered a martyr’s death for his effort. Although none of the apologists was able to influence the emperors, they did encourage the Christians.