On the evening of July 18, in the scorching summer of 64 CE, a fire started in a shop under the Circus Maximus in Rome. The fire quickly spread to nearby homes and businesses and the Circus itself. The fire burned for six days, ravaging the city. It left only four of Rome’s fourteen quarters untouched.
The reigning emperor, Nero, a man known for his cruelty and love of theater, scapegoated the Christians for the disaster. According to tradition and later historians, as a punishment, Nero devised grotesque executions for the Christians: he covered them in animal skins and had them torn apart by dogs, and he doused them in tar and used them as human torches to light the night sky for his dinner parties. It was in the wake of the fire, Christian tradition maintains, that the most important Apostles–St Peter and St Paul–were arrested and executed. But while the fire of Rome was a devastating historical reality, did Nero actually target Christians as a result?
Most of the historical evidence for Nero persecuting Christians comes to us from the writings of the Roman historian Tacitus, who wrote between 115-120 CE, at least fifty years after the events he was describing. According to Tacitus, the people of Rome blamed Nero for the fire and Nero responded by deflecting blame onto the Christians. He writes, “Nero fastened guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on [the Christians who] were hated for their abominations.” Christians were rounded up, arrested, and interrogated for information about others in the city and, in the end, “an immense multitude” was convicted and executed.