Why did Nero crucify Peter

Persecution of Christians under Nero

Did Nero really persecute the Christians for the fire of Rome? Or was another religion the victim? There are still discussions about the bloody chapter of his rule.

Emperor Nero staged the execution of Christians after the fire in Rome as a spectacle. Engraving after the picture by Henryk Siemiradzki, 1877 | © istockphoto.com/ZU_09

Hell has broken out and he is right in the middle of it. Centuries-old marble columns that collapse like sandcastles by the sea. Bricks that almost melt in the heat. Solid wooden beams that are engulfed in the flames like ham from a starved dog. In addition, the cracking of the fire, the cracking of the house walls, the complaining of the people. And he, Nero, just sits on the roof of his palace and plays. Plays on his lyre, sees his capital Rome sink in the fire and continues playing. And at some point the emperor begins to sing. Literally a song from hell, the song of death. The scene of Emperor Nero, who looks at the great fire of Rome and plays on his lyre to pass the time, is legendary, but also a legend.

In fact, when the great fire broke out on July 18, 64, Nero was in his hometown of Antium, today just over an hour's drive from Rome. When he received the news of the fire, the emperor is said to have gone straight to his capital and initiated fire fighting and disaster control measures. The story of the emperor making music, a fairy tale. On the other hand, the consequences that Nero drew from the fire are not a fairy tale: He had the Christians proclaimed as scapegoats, hunted them down and cruelly executed them - alongside Diocletian, Nero is considered one of the most persecuting Christians.

Nero was the Donald Trump of ancient Rome

But that's not the only reason why Nero is one of the most hated emperors in Roman history. Why is that? One answer is: Because Nero already had enemies during his lifetime, including, above all, “opinion makers”. They tried everything to discredit the emperor - with success. They hated his person, but also his politics. To put it bluntly, one could say: Nero was the Donald Trump of ancient Rome. At the beginning of his reign, Nero appeared as an imperial tribune who made gifts for the plebs and the aristocrats difficult. He was by no means untalented in client politics and his clientele, that was not the rich patriciate or the educated upper class. It was the common people whom he kept happy with chariot races and grain - the perfect implementation of “bread and games”.

This fits in with how Nero reacted to the fire: He stigmatized a minority as guilty. The Christians were perfectly suited for this. They were eyed suspiciously anyway, because on the one hand they grew rapidly and at the same time separated themselves from the social life of the time. For example, their commandments prohibited them from participating in the amusements at the circus. For most of their fellow citizens, that alone was already noticeable. Also the Romans could not do anything with the idea of ​​a monotheistic confession, especially to a God who had died on the cross and thus in shame. The Christians were outsiders and therefore easy prey.

The conviction as an arsonist was calculated coolly

Recently, the thesis has arisen that Nero did not hand over Christians to public anger as scapegoats, but rather followers of the Isis cult. However, most scientists do not consider this thesis to be verifiable. Like many of his subjects, Nero himself had a weakness for the religions from the east of the empire. At that time Rome was a religious melting pot, a hotspot of eclecticism, which can easily be seen in the buildings, for example: One of the most charming churches in Rome, small and hidden, is the Santo Stefano del Cacco, not far from the Pantheon. In Nero's time, where a Christian house of worship was built in the 9th century, there was a Temple of Isis - its twelve columns were later simply used for the nave.

The cult of Isis undoubtedly played a role in 1st century Rome and in Nero's life. It is not certain whether the emperor was actually a follower of the Egyptian goddess, but it is also not unlikely. The fact that he later turned against the Isis cult out of disappointment, for example over the death of his daughter, and had his former “fellow believers” tried as arsonists is hardly shared by experts. There is broad consensus that Nero calculated coolly and relied on the advice of his Praetorian prefect Tigellinus. The emperor knew the rumor that he himself had ordered the fire. If one believes Tacitus, he launched legal proceedings to show that the Christians were followers of a sect and fanatics and had started the fire. These procedures did not prove that, not even with Tacitus, who, however, agreed to the punishment of Christians because he considered them to be "misanthropists".

Bread and games in cruel form

What followed was a mass murder organized as a spectacle, "bread and games" in its cruelest form. According to Tacitus, Christians were sewn into animal skins and torn to pieces by dogs, nailed to the cross or burned alive as "torches", dressed in pitch-soaked tunics. The Romans called it "tunica molesta" ("annoying tunic"). This cynical term suggests a broad acceptance of the persecution of Christians among the Roman people. However, the historian Julian Krüger points out that it is not possible to estimate exactly how the people actually received the event. Tacitus claims that the severity of the punishment also generated pity. But it can also be, as Krüger notes, that Tacitus was speaking here for himself rather than the general public.

Either way, the rumors about Nero's arson did not stop. How many Christians fell victim to Nero's rage is unclear. Early Christian sources speak of almost a thousand, modern historians more often of a few hundred murdered. In any case, the persecution had serious consequences: “The Neronian persecution had caused something drastic: For the first time, it identified Christians as a religious community suspected of committing acts hostile to society. In times of need, Christians were available as a group of people for atonement and sacrifice in a public setting, ”says Krüger. Nero not only released Christians to hunt dogs in his circus, but also for later emperors throughout the empire - that too is his legacy.

The fate of Peter and Paul

Just as controversial as the exact number of victims is whether the apostles Peter and Paul, as Christianity professes, were martyred during the persecution in Rome. Peter on the cross, with his head down, so as not to be crucified like Jesus Christ himself. And Paul by the sword, a “privilege” that he is said to have owed to his father's Roman citizenship.

In any case, Petrus' fate is cinematically closely linked to Nero: Nobody portrayed Nero more convincingly than Peter Ustinov in "Quo Vadis" from 1951. The title goes back to a legend that is not in the official biblical canon, but for that Christianity is of great importance: So Peter fled, not for the first time, for fear for his life before his task to testify to faith in Jesus Christ even up to martyrdom. On his way out of the city, he met a man at the fork in the Via Appia and Via Ardeatina. At some point he recognized him as Christ, the risen one, and he asked him: "Domine, quo vadis?" "Lord, where are you going?" And Jesus answered: "I come to Rome to be crucified a second time." And Peter understood that he could not run away and turned back. Back to Rome and to Nero. Back to death.

Simon Biallowons

The article first appeared in G / Geschichte 06/2016 "Nero"

Last modified: December 14, 2016

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