The night of July 18 or 19 of 64 AD was the setting for the event that would mark the reign of Emperor Nero until the end of the world. A torrid summer oppressed the residents of Rome, the capital of an empire whose dimensions stretched to the limits of the known world. The alarm trumpets announced the catastrophe: a fire of uncommon proportions, having spread through the wooden houses that crowded the city, was devastating all the monuments that made up the most expressive corollary of the Greco-Latin culture.
The drama lasted about one hundred and fifty hours, annihilating almost the entire city. Behold the glorious Rome of the Caesars converted into an infernal theatre; nothing remains but dust and ashes.
What was the spark that set off this conflagration?
In the eyes of many survivors, it was merely an accident, caused by the intense seasonal temperatures and fuelled by the timber of the city’s dwellings. However, no one ruled out the possibility of arson: who would benefit from this crime? It was known that Nero wanted to rebuild the main Roman edifices in the style of Alexandria, according to a majestic plan. This project, together with other statements and rumours, made the Emperor the prime suspect.
Moreover, even before the capital was burned down, Nero’s government had initiated a period of real tension. It had been five years since he had ordered the death of Agrippina, his mother; he had also ordered the beheading of his own wife, Octavia, to give her place to a concubine.
Such transgressions did not help to clear him of the rumours. Fearing reprisals, Nero realized that he needed to restore his reputation before the eyes of the people. For that, it was necessary to find a scapegoat. And he chose the Christians for the holocaust: those outcasts of society would fit like a glove into the role of the guilty.
On an August night, inside Nero’s own circus, where St. Peter’s Basilica now stands, Christians of all ages and both genders were viciously tortured, beheaded, hunted like beasts and subjected to the worst moral vexations, all under the light of torches composed of living people, to quench the blood-lust of the incensed population. However, the pagans were stunned by the courage and joy with which those heroes of the Faith submitted to these torments, secure in the knowledge of the prize that awaited them.
Victim of himself
Nero thought he had overcome the disfavour of his subjects – a sweet illusion which soon faded, giving way to reality, that is, to a nightmare.
On the night of June 9 of the year 68, Nero awoke to hear through the window of his palace a crowd shouting: “Death to the matricide!” And he immediately foresaw the future that awaited him: in the best of cases, to be sewn inside a leather sack and thrown into the Tiber, the penalty prescribed by Roman law for this kind of murderer.
He called for the royal guard, only to realize that there was no longer anyone willing to protect him. The despot was certainly beleaguered by his own conscience with tortures far more atrocious than those of the Christians he had victimized.
Finally, on the afternoon of June 11, he preferred to be his own victim: weeping, he ended his days by thrusting a dagger into his throat.
From coarse soldier to Caesar
Another paradigmatic case of the fate awaiting the persecutors of the Church occurred three hundred years after Nero’s reign. Seeing the demographic growth and the constant insurrection of the peoples subjugated to Roman rule, Diocletian felt the need to divide the government into a tetrarchy. There would be a bipartition of the empire – into East and West – in which each half would be under the command of an Augustus, who should appoint a Caesar, an auxiliary with his own jurisdiction whose function would be to learn the art of governance, becoming the natural successor to the throne. Diocletian, who opted for the East, elected as Caesar one Galerius, a rough soldier whose mere appearance, in the words of Lactantius, “was enough to instil fear.”1
When the Roman tetrarchy was organized, Christians had enjoyed a regime of tolerance for thirty years, for Diocletian did not see in the true Faith the slightest threat to his rule. So greatly had the Religion expanded during the armistice, that many important posts in the empire were in the hands of Christians, and even the wife and daughter of the Augustus of the East were highly sympathetic to them.
Why then was the persecution, considered to be the bloodiest of all, unleashed?
Though the causes seem obscure, it is known that Galerius played at least an important part. It was he who instigated Diocletian to begin a purge in the army, because he claimed there was insubordination on the part of the followers of Jesus. It was then resolved that all Christian soldiers should publicly sacrifice to idols, on pain of ignominious degradation.
“The last prayers of the Christian martyrs”, by Jean-Léon Gérôme – Walters Museum of Art, Baltimore (MD); inset, bust of Galerius – Palace of Galerius, Gamzigrad (Serbia)
However, this seemed too little for Galerius, who was still waiting for a more opportune moment…
To oblige the emperor to take a more aggressive attitude towards the Holy Church, the pretexts that were brought to the attention of the Caesar were so convenient that it is difficult not to suspect something more than mere chance behind them. The environs of Diocletian’s palace were twice set on fire, attacks for which Galerius blamed the Christians. The Augustus, sensing that he was surrounded by criminals, arsonists and murderers, eventually unleashed the persecution that was to intensify in successive stages. History has no accounts of martyrdoms as atrocious as those of this period.
Eusebius of Caesarea, author of the oldest account in Church History and an eyewitness to many of these events, relates that some Christians “had their entire bodies lacerated by shells instead of hooks, until they died. […] Still others perished tied to trees and branches: the strongest branches were brought together with the aid of machinery, and the limbs of the martyrs were tied to two separate branches, and then the branches were set free so that they returned to their natural position. In this way, they had invented the dismemberment with a single stroke of those who suffered this torture.”2 And these are only a couple of examples…
Was the avenging God doing justice?
After Galerius took over as Augustus of the East in 305, five years of violent torture followed until, in 310, the persecutor was stricken with a tragic disease: cancer. His entire lower body was nothing more than a festering sore, an ailment aggravated by the hot climate, poor hygiene and the primitive surgeries of the time.
Fear overwhelmed him. Galerius was superstitious, and his pagan faith, sincere as it seemed, had always rested on the ancient law of talion. Was some avenging god doing him justice for the twelve years of unrelenting slaughter of innocents?
He thought, then, that he could negotiate with Christ, as he was used to doing with the Sun: life and health, for the end of the persecution. The Augustus soon promulgated an edict of tolerance, the most benevolent that had been seen up to that moment. Unfortunately, this did not prevent the disease from running its course.
The last manoeuvre of the pagan empire
Not long after the ill-fated “recantation” of Galerius, Emperor Constantine granted freedom to the Church through the Edict of Milan. It was a victory for the Faith, and more and more the Rome of the Caesars was conquered by the peaceful rule of Christ.
The years went by, and in 331 a nephew of the emperor was born: Julian. The son of Christian parents, he was the only survivor, along with a half-brother, of the murder of his family in 337. The boy had the air of a mystic about him, and at the age of sixteen he even aspired to the priesthood; yet St. Gregory Nazianzen, who knew him, also speaks of his agitation and the almost unhealthy ardour that could be seen in his behaviour.3
The tragedies of a troubled adolescence contributed to his leaving the Christian ranks in order to adhere to the pompous Neoplatonic philosophies.
In 351 he was called by Constantius, successor of Constantine, to assume the office of Caesar and administer Gaul. His success proved to be complete as a governor and as a warrior against the Germanic peoples, which increased his prestige before the people and the emperor.
Julian the Apostate – Tongeren (Belgium)
Julian’s accession to the purple in 361 was a natural consequence of the death of Constantius, and occasioned a veritable resurgence of paganism, the last manoeuvre of a tradition doomed to disappear.
During his journey to Constantinople to assume charge over the empire, the old temples were reopened and the pagan priests came to acclaim him in the streets.
The oppressive conciliation
At the beginning of his reign, Julian limited himself to demonstrating his preference for false religions without using force. Like a carefully administered poison, the emperor gradually ceded administrative posts, mostly held by the baptized, to pagans of his affinity, and rewarded members of the Church who apostatized. Paradoxically, he wrote to the priests of the gods advising them to imitate the Christian virtues! A subliminal certificate of bankruptcy, no doubt.
After a few months, however, the situation changed. Julian began to take more severe measures, such as the application of a decree ordering the restoration of idolatrous worship in those churches of the empire that had once been temples of the gods. But the Christians were already too firmly established to expect this to pass without resistance.
In various regions bloody episodes erupted, such as the case of the Bishop of Aretusa, who had saved Julian from slaughter in 337, and who was tortured to death in punishment for an attack on pagan practices. They also murdered priests, who were sound in their teachings, for opposing idols. In short, a new era of persecution was looming on the horizon of Christianity, and everyone feared its consequences. Julian even publicly disapproved of some of the excesses of the idolaters, but such attitudes were not the logical conclusion of his “conciliatory” policy between Christianity and pagan worship.
Before long, even these last vestiges of ecumenical pseudo-tolerance fell away. Between 362 and 363, the emperor began to write openly against the Holy Religion. He claimed that the “Christian machination” was an invention of human malice, and that Christ had been nothing but a simple man, a kind of anarchist whose principles would ruin society if they were implemented. But these outrages were short-lived.
An oversight leads to the end
Allegory of the Church – Prüfening Abbey, Regensburg (Germany)
In June 363, while retreating during a battle in the dangerous campaign in present-day Iran, Julian went to the rescue of his rear guard, but he did this so hastily that he forgot to put on his breastplate. A spear pierced him in the liver. He was taken to his tent, where he died during the night.
The death of this thirty-two-year-old leader proved to be so clearly providential that it was quickly spread that in his last breath he exclaimed, referring to Our Lord: “You have won, Galilean!”
This fact is questioned by historians. In any case, its symbolism seems undeniable. In the end, light prevailed over iniquity. Rome – rich, powerful, influential, corrupt, sordid, apostate – folded before the overwhelming power of the truth: “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great! It has become a dwelling place of demons, a haunt of every foul spirit” (Rv 18:2).
Can one common denominator be identified in the stories of these emperors? The attitudes of the three characters – Nero, Galerius and Julian – constituted a rejection of the greatest treasure that God left on this earth: the Holy Catholic Church. And they all met an end that they could not have imagined when they first sat on the throne.
Did they pursue the truth with evil intentions or out of the folly of their passions? By malice or by pusillanimity in the face of external influences? The interior of men cannot be known, but their motives were probably a combination of all these factors. But the fact is that these persecutors passed away; Christ, however, remains.
Thus, it is well to bear in mind Gamaliel’s words before the Sanhedrin: “And now, therefore, I say to you, refrain from these men, and let them alone; for if this council or this work be of men, it will come to nought; But if it be of God, you cannot overthrow it, lest perhaps you be found even to fight against God” (cf. Acts 5:38-39). ◊
1 DANIEL-ROPS. A Igreja dos Apóstolos e dos mártires. São Paulo: Quadrante, 1988, p.387.
2 EUSEBIUS OF CAESAREA. Histoire Ecclésiastique. L.VIII, c.9, n.1-2: SC 55, 17.
3 Cf. DANIEL-ROPS, op. cit., p.547.