The Scapegoats

The Christian Scapegoats and the Great Fire of Rome

It wasn't long before Nero arrived to bring order to the chaos. A rumor had gone forth which accused Nero of starting the fire himself, and had even sang a song from his Palace tower as he watched the flames engulf the city. Nero had also planned in detail for the cities reconstruction but the rumors continued.

Nero had to find a way to "suppress this rumor" according to Tacitus. Nero chose the new secret religious sect of the Christians as his scapegoats and punished them severely. They were arrested throughout the empire and "their deaths were made farcical." Nero took pleasure in the Christian persecutions and even offered many of them upon stakes to be burned to death as torches for his parties. According to history many of them were hunted down and tortured, some were sewn into skins of animals and fed to starving dogs while the mob cheered.

Even the historian Tacitus, who did not like Christians, objected to the way Nero had made scapegoats of them.

The persecution of the Christians under Nero revealed the growing resentment the people had toward the early church. It also revealed that 20 years after the reign of Claudius, the Christians in Rome had become recognized as a distinct group, separate from the Jews.

Why the Christians?

Christianity was a new religion and did not appear to be very threatening. The Christians refused to participate in pagan rituals and therefore those who practiced them found it very offensive, according to Tacitus. He describes the Christians as "depraved" and says that this religion is "deadly superstition", "mischief", and "shameful practices." Tacitus also indicted the Christians as "not so much for incendiarism as for their anti-social tendencies," and a hidden hatred for mankind, which was a label that had been originally put on the Jews. It is interesting that Tacitus was more than a historian, he was a member of the aristocracy and a friend of several emperors. Therefore his feelings toward the Christians may have reflected also among the aristocrats. Suetonius, a writer and government official, also indicted the Christians explaining that they were proponents of "a new and mischievous religious belief."

Before Nero had began persecuting Christians, they were generally non-threatening to the peace of the empire. The main hostility have been brought about by Jewish leaders who had gone to Roman officials about the Christians.