The persecution of the church under Nero, the first emperor to directly target Christianity
313 CE to 325 CE
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For a general introduction to Eusebius and the Ecclesiastical History, please see the commentary on I.6.6-11.
This passage joins in the tradition of ascribing the first case of imperially sanctioned persecution of Christians to the emperor Nero. In 64 CE, a devastating fire broke out in the city of Rome, a famous account of which comes from the Roman historian Tacitus, Annals XV, and which many believed to have been deliberately started by the maniacal Nero, whom Suetonius and Dio Cassius describe as singing and playing the lyre while watching the city burn. After describing in detail the so-called Great Fire of Rome, and stating that it is uncertain as to how it started (some of his sources blamed the emperor himself, and some did not), Tacitus goes on to explain that Nero promptly blamed the Christians. Suetonius, Nero XXXVIII, and Cassius Dio, Roman History LXII.18 both claim that Nero was himself responsible for starting the fire, and diverted attention away from himself by placing the blame on the Christians. As a result, the persecution began, which Tacitus narrates.
The reliability of Tacitus’s account of the persecution has been questioned over the years, with many scholars having suggested that his version of events cannot be trusted (for a recent argument in this direction, see Brent Shaw, “The Myth,” who suggests that the so-called Neronian persecution never actually occurred). However, there are those who believe Tacitus to be credible; among the most recent is Christopher Jones, who argues directly against Shaw, and claims that we have little reason to doubt Tacitus’s narrative. Second and third century writers such as Melito of Sardis (preserved in Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical History IV.26.9) and Dionysius of Alexandria also date the martyrdoms of the apostles Peter and Paul to Nero’s reign, but Jones argues that these martyrdom accounts should really be assessed separately from the context of the persecution resulting from the Great Fire of Rome. Jones argues that contra Shaw, there would have been sufficient numbers of Christians in Rome upon which to place the blame, especially given Paul’s epistle to the church just a few years earlier, which speaks of the fame of the Roman church far and wide (see Jones, “The Historicity”). Regardless, Eusebius is content here to accept both that Nero was the first imperial ruler to instigate a persecution specifically targeting the Christians, and the tradition which places the martyrdoms of Paul and Peter within this timeframe. Indeed, in II.22.1-8 of the present work, just a few chapters earlier than the current passage, he deals with the trial and imprisonment of Paul, and concludes that while likely more tolerant to the apostle’s teachings at first, Nero later grew more hostile, and made a martyr of Paul at the same time as many others.
What is interesting for our purposes, however, is not whether a persecution of Christians occurred under Nero in precisely the way Tacitus describes, but rather the way in which Eusebius presents this tradition as part of his polemic regarding the status of Christianity within the Roman empire. The passage above begins by stating outright that Nero, in a manner most unholy (ἀνόσιος, anosios), established himself as an enemy of God and his religion, Christianity. This is a bold statement, which is developed over the course of the following verses. Eusebius claims in verse 2 that he does not intend to outline every despicable deed committed by Nero—this has been done already by others. For the murders of Nero’s relatives, which are specifically mentioned by Eusebius, see Tacitus, Annals XIII.15-17; XIV.4-8; Suetonius, Nero XXXV. These accounts, along with the many other examples of Nero’s cruelty and madness (μανία, mania), for Eusebius indicate that he possessed tendencies of bloodthirstiness (μιαιφονία, miaiphonia) even before he turned his attention to the Christians (the portrayal of Nero in these ancient sources is considered by some scholars to be heavily polemical and of limited historical use; see, for example, Edward Champlin, Nero, p. 36-52, who argues that the despotic image of the emperor is now so well established that modern readers of the ancient sources are in danger of “fitting pieces of evidence into our preconceived picture of the tyrant”; quotation at p. 51). Eusebius, however, follows in the footsteps of the abovementioned authors who distinguish between the earlier and later years of Nero’s rule, exploiting on a literary topos which claimed that with Nero’s government “now firmly established” his most impious acts began.
The most significant of all Nero’s crimes for Eusebius was that he was the first Roman emperor to mark himself out as an enemy of Christianity (verse 3). For support, Eusebius draws upon Tertullian, who in his Apology V also records this very fact. The Latin text of Tertullian has not been perfectly translated by the Greek translator that Eusebius uses here (this is noted by McGiffert in the English edition quoted above, p. 129 n. 5). A rendering of the Latin text is as follows (the Latin text can be seen in the commentary on Apology V itself): “Consult your histories; you will there find that Nero was the first who assailed with the imperial sword the Christian sect, making profess then especially at Rome. But we glory in having our condemnation hallowed by the hostility of such a wretch. For anyone who knows him, can understand that not except as being of singular excellence did anything bring on it Nero’s condemnation.” The Greek text utilised here by Eusebius speaks of Nero’s subjugation of the East, which acted as a precursor for his actions against those who inhabited Rome. Most importantly, however, Eusebius’s citation of Tertullian nonetheless highlights that having Nero as an enemy was something that the Christians were immensely proud of, because it was well known that he did not take against anything which was not “of great excellence” (verse 4). The emperor’s hatred and cruelty, then, is taken as a legitimising sign of Christianity’s merit—it is only being opposed because it is considered credible, and something worth being an enemy of. In this way, Eusebius is able to present Christianity as a force to be reckoned with, which arguably the empire’s cruellest ruler to date recognised as a worthy opponent. Moreover, an analogy can be drawn between the greatness of the city of Rome and that of Christianity, both of which were targeted by this same despotic emperor.